A Brief History of Western Culture – Michael Peverett

Section 1. To 1588

Section 2: 1588-1790

Section 3. 1790-1870

Section 4. 1870-1945

Section 5. 1945-1975

Section 6. 1975-1984

Section 7. 1985-1997

Section 8. 1997-2004

Section 9. 2004-Now

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A BRIEF HISTORY OF WESTERN CULTURE

 

by Michael Peverett

 

Section 7. 1985-1997

 

 

Contents

[Items marked * are separate HTML pages - click on the links to get to them.]

 

Lionel Davidson      a craftsman entertains

Jeremy Reed     NEW

The Autobiography of Alex Higgins (1986)     a survival script

Karleen Koen: Through a Glass Darkly (1986)        romance without limits

Giorgio & Nicola Pressburger: Homage to the Eighth District (1986)  

Peter Redgrove (1932-2003)            poems you can’t criticize

Frederik Pohl: Narabedla Inc. (1988)     “Is that what you’d do, Nolly?”

Jeffrey Archer: A Twist in the Tale (1988)        method reading”   

John Maynard Smith: Did Darwin Get It Right? (1989)     addressing the laity

A.S. Byatt: Possession (1991)       NEW

Germaine Greer (1991)                 who are books about?

Colm Tóibín: The Heather Blazing (1992)          to judge fairly of the matter

Donald Ward: Lark Over Stone Walls (1993)   

Denise Riley   *

Martyn Crucefix (1990, 1994)        the kind of poem one writes

J.H. Prynne: Her Weasels Wild Returning (1994)  not all the facets

Cathal Ó Searcaigh (1993, 1997)       cor na síog do Jazzman na Gealaí

Colin Falck: Post-Modern Love (1997)   


 

 

Lionel Davidson - The Sun Chemist (1976)

 

[OK, so this is in the wrong place, chronologically. Davidson was born in 1922, and this book was written ten years earlier than I imagined when I wrote about it.]

 

This is as good, perhaps, as The Riddle of the Sands. Of course, I try to take it apart to see how it works. The most evident technical problem with a can't-put-it-down adventure is to hold the reader - to avoid, or stave off, the disillusionment that threatens when mysteries are unravelled and the end looms in sight.

 

The Sun Chemist begins as a mystery of finding out, full of clues, an unfailingly entertaining procedure while it lasts. Later, it switches to a different kind of adventure, the one where there is someone (who?) on the narrator’s trail. Here, the author needs to be nimble. I am not quite clear why the biffing of assistant Hopcroft, so early in the book, doesn’t induce more paranoia. It is all very well for the narrator to speak flippantly, but would he really think the same way? And when, finally, the narrator has the precious manuscript in his hands, we need to accept that he doesn’t think more coolly - which would mean, for instance, staying in a provincial library, taking dozens of copies, and mailing them all over the world. He is perfectly safe; he has infinite time; but instead he hustles wantonly off to Heathrow, thus re-entering the very narrow corridor that his enemies can keep under observation.

 

Still, the resulting loss of the manuscript is necessary, not only for credibility but to produce the right sort of ending, muted, defeated, still delightfully flippant.

 

It cannot be supposed that the areas of structural weakness (or “nimbleness”) could be avoided. If not precisely in this form, they’d emerge somewhere else, because the basic premise that we concede (“the real world and the adventure world are the same”) is false. As a form, nevertheless, the adventure story can be better or worse.

 

They get better, too, as they age, because they start yielding up incidental information about their culture. This presents a fascinating view of Israel, without the shadow of Palestine, that now seems wholly closed to us. (We want Igor Druyanov to succeed, for some reason - perhaps an ingrained pursuit of truth, in this case happily not playing into the hands of corporations... why should scientists seem so wearily to do so? Is the good of humanity and the good of the corporate really just the same, corporates being the executives of our benefits?)

 

Oh yes - Ham Wyke’s crucial slip about the warm desk-lamp is not credible - one couldn’t confuse spoken material with experienced material in this sort of way. We are ready deceivers and soon learn to keep them far apart in our mental libraries.

 

[Brief note on Kolymsky Heights (1994): This is splendid entertainment. Only at the very death (on ice in the Baring Strait) does a certain level of doubt intrude. It’s a book written with great intuition; it doesn’t need to add up. Never once do we hear what the hero thinks about the extraordinary things he is shown inside the research station. The title refers to a not very important range of hills. The hero and heroine are reunited in the end - very old-fashioned. The whole Japan / tramp-steamer episode is really an irrelevance (and surely Porter’s arrival at Green Cape is a bad way of drawing attention to yourself in the very spot where you plan to operate). None of this matters. The book is an immense record of what people did. It’s very exciting. The “more” which the thriller is supposed at its best to be weighted with (“more than just a thriller”) is simply the sense of being there; fiddling with an engine, with gears, waiting for a flight. Siberia is drawn on for its mythic power - the most impossible place to get into, the most impossible place to get out of. As in The Sun Chemist, the quest is not for riches or salvation but information - credibly detailed fictional science. It hangs here in a vacuum, this section, with its lovely meeting with Ludmilla. As if the author invites you to forget it if you don’t want to bother with it. A scene such as Lazenby catching a salmon has nothing germane for the plot, but it’s a scene that confesses to being part of a thriller. “His gear was some way back, and when he reached it the light was too bad for him to see the gauge on his weighing hook.” The same urgency, the recalcitrance of things - the recalcitrance of Siberia.]

 

 

 

 

(2001, 2002)


Jeremy Reed

 

Jeremy Reed, Selected Poems (Penguin). This is from the period in the 80s when he came in from the cold, though he didn't stay.

     Two (buoys) I see wintering
     at grass in a shipping yard,
     veterans of long wars,
     their grizzled tonsures hard

     with resilience, awaiting
     new paint, their cyclopean
     eyeballs gone rusty from staring
     unlidded at the ocean.


Judgments of this period are inevitably flecked with judgments of the political shift (in poetry terms). Setting that aside, so far as it's possible, this poetry continues to amaze me.

"Winter Mullet" (from Nero, 1985) has the author solitarily fishing the warm outflows of a power station and it climaxes in a truly outré simile:

     I stay on, the cold chaps my fingers red,
     its pimpling's like dried beads of black hemlock,
     the fish have tightened now into a head,...


OK, so hemlock (Conium maculatum) is a common umbelliferous plant with a mousey smell and wine-spotted stems, highly toxic and evidently the source of the poison that was used to execute Socrates. (See
Enid Bloch's essay
Hemlock Poisoning and the Death of Socrates: Did Plato Tell the Truth?
.) It can also be used therapeutically, but hardly ever is because of the low therapeutic index.

Black hemlock is an alternative name for mountain hemlock, Tsuga mertensiana, a decorative tree of no great utility from the snowlines of the Rockies. The hemlocks are a genus of mostly New World coniferous trees that gained their name from a supposed resemblance of the scent of the foliage to hemlock.

It's from another of these, the Eastern Hemlock (Tsuga canadensis), that the substance "black hemlock" (hemlock pitch, Pix Canadensis) used by perfumers and herbalists is made - it's made from the resin.

The name, of course, is replete with darkly glamorous potential. Thus Linda Pilkington's Ormande Jayne fragrance Ormande Woman uses black hemlock as one of its materials, and her publicity positively encourages a confusion with "Socrates' chosen poison". Likewise Boudicca's Wode is advertised as containing an extract of Queen Boadicea's death-potion. It's from here that the phrase "black hemlock" has slipped into popular culture, re-emerging in that popular piece of costume jewellery for Goths, the black hemlock poison ring, a large black crystal hingeing to reveal a secret compartment beneath it. It even turns up in footy talk, in this surprising demonstration of why Seneca was a Southampton supporter and all Saints fans are Stoics (red blood, white toga, black hemlock - get it?).

That artificial injection of West End glam seems entirely appropriate to Reed's poetry but what does he mean specifically? He must be referring to the herbalist's resinous substance, his numbed fingers feeling when they touch each other like they are touching, not each other, but something alien between them, while the poet takes on the semi-comatose trance of the fish themselves and is caught in shock by a man's torchbeam. But this simile is more important for its effect in focussing attention on the poet's conflicted performance than for its descriptive meaning. And though his swarming winter mullet are nearly as memorable as the lashing conger eel (in another of these poems), it's the performance that is mainly what I think is so compulsive about the mainstream Reed.

 

(2010)

 


Alex Through the Looking Glass: The Autobiography of Alex Higgins (Alex Higgins with Tony Francis, 1986)

 

 

 

If the only worthwhile communication in art is not what is said but what is betrayed, this should appeal. The book is narrated in the first, i.e. Alex’s, person (except for an introduction in which Francis speaks for himself). As we read we believe in the persona, and Francis is quite unobtrusive. That it is more or less an understood intention to betray is clear from the often discordant intrusions of Alex’s wife and relatives. Did Alex himself intend to speak frankly, or intend to reveal himself frankly (a different thing)?

 

“That night the lid blew off. It was the culmination of four years of pressure. The whole episode was so preposterous you’d hardly believe it. One thing I will not stand for is being accused of something when I’m fairly and squarely not guilty. I lost control. That’s why the television set went out of the window. I had to vent my fury somehow. It was better than hitting Lynn. What is a fellow to do when his wife is behaving like this?”

 

Seeing Alex play snooker was electrifying, but not friendly. He was not really an intentional entertainer. His belief is in who he is - a phenomenon, a person whose every act in some way typifies his unique style. He takes curiously little pleasure in his two world championships. His apparently intense love for his children is unconvincing - it convinced me, iconically, when he wept and beckoned for Lauren on TV. The autobiography assumes that Alex will settle down calmly into middle age - but we know better. Such religious egotism requires disaster. The inevitability is perhaps unwittingly alluded to in one of the sentences above: “It was the culmination of four years of pressure”. Alex grasps that the cause of the outburst is not altogether the immediate events but his own history, which is absolutely real to him. The next sentence makes light of the circumstances. Then he asserts: “One thing I will not stand for...” as if it was a matter of principle. Such principles are always witnesses to a life being desperately shored up. 

 

That Alex could learn from such an incident is precluded by the very personality (or life-strategies) that caused the incident. “Snooker is show business and the show had to go on. I even managed a humorous interview with Dickie Davis before the match and put on a pretty good act I think. That was the professional in me. Others might have thrown in the towel under that pressure, but the old survival instincts saw me through.” The “survival instincts” is an accurate phrase, but what is enabled to survive is the destructive self.

 

 

 

 

(2002)

 


Karleen Koen: Through a Glass Darkly (1986)

 

 

My comments on this sweeping historical romance (“the grandest love story ever told”) may be compared with what I have written elsewhere about Katherine McMahon (2000). But anachronism is by no means so prominent a feature of this author’s method; you might say that Karleen Koen’s sense of the present is indistinguishable from her sense of the eighteenth century.

 

It is a vast book, and towards the end is plainly preparing for its sequel. The end of the grand love story is not the end. As it happens that accords with our persistent troubled idea that the love story is after all not quite grand, but qualified in manifold ways, its hero inappropriately old, an inconstant bisexual whose love for Barbara may not after all be his deepest (that may have been his love for her grandfather). There is no pretence that Barbara’s hopeful sketches play any part in his subsequent beginnings of Devane House – his gigantic dream, which she allowed herself to think of as “their dream”. He dies, it seems, hardly aware of her – there is no sugary concord here. He is ruined and disgraced. Barbara’s happiness coincides with, but does not redeem, a profoundly corrupt Parisian milieu and the death of all her younger brothers and sisters from smallpox. These are not flaws. In Barbara’s tumultuous day-to-day experience everything co-exists, as in life.

 

You know what kind of a book this is, of course. Which almost blinds you to its unpredictability: to Philippe, Harry, Mary, Thérèse, the smallpox, the sodden father, the duel, the Bubble. No story goes the way it should. Everyone is a victim. The characters are effortlessly maintained, but the tie between character and destiny is intangible. Diana (Barbara’s whorish, mercenary mother) is an arbitrary exception – her stupid resilience pleases us in the end. She begins to assume, when nothing else can, the halo of comedy; a surprising discovery, the kind of thing that may happen when you write without bother about critics, knowing you will attract none (I do not count).

 

The story is well-laden with goods (Roger is very rich). One of Karleen Koen’s characteristic sentence-forms is the rushed list, separated by “and”s:

 

It was Christmas Eve. Saylor House was bustling with servants cleaning floors, polishing furniture and silver. Delicious smells of roasting capon and goose and turkey wafted from the kitchen. Various sets of small tables were being moved into the great parlour and the hall and set with heavy damask trimmed in lace and china plates and silver forks and spoons and knives and cups and salt cellars. It would be a late supper, at eight, and then the adults would stay up toasting the evening and watching the yule log burn...

 

 

This is 1715. Lest you doubt, turkey was a popular Christmas dish in England from around 1650. The author’s research throughout is fairly impeccable but the syntax proclaims that anyway all the detail is to be flown through in pursuit of the elusive tissue of a life that won’t stop going on. The other characteristic sentence-form is the one-word sentence, usually a name. Roger. Barbara. These sentences are like stabs, their meaning comprising whole passages of experience that are signposted as adequately though of course as drastically as we name a dot on a map as - London.

 

Her grandmother had saved the letter, giving it silently back to her; she read it and reread it until it tore along its creases. I am not a fool, he wrote, I know there is much to be explained between us. Philippe. Who smiled at her under the great dome of Roger’s pavilion of the arts. If Roger thought she would pack her trunks and rush headlong to London tohis waiting arms, he had another thought coming. (Besides, she had rushed headlong once, already, in the spring, and he had not even realized it. Rushed headlong into Philippe’s smile. Like running into a wall.) She would wait. She would let her heart tell her what to do, and she would not make one move from Tamworth until she was certain. Roger could wait  . . . as she had waited. She still had much to deal with. There were dark dreams of her father and of Jemmy. Of Charles and Richelieu, who opened their arms to her, but somehow she could never reach them. She had to understand it all. And herself. Roger, wait. As I have waited. Ah, Roger, the girl who loved you in Paris does not exist, and the heart of the one who does is so hard . . . it needs to soften. I need time to heal, to forgive and forget . . . 

 

It doesn’t much matter what Barbara’s heart tells her; unknown to her, Roger is already dying. Yet because we share Barbara’s experience we will continue to feel that what the heart tells matters totally. What other people may tell is nothing, it’s of no consequence unless the heart accords with it and absorbs it into its own telling.

 

This is what Roger says to Barbara in the last few months of his life, the last thirty pages of his life.

 

 

            ‘Behind,’ he whispered. ‘The French are massed behind . . .’

 

 

            ‘Barbara.’ He croaked out her name. ‘H-hurts.’

 

 

(After her performance in the Christmas play) Roger stared at her, his mouth compressed. ‘I hurt . . .’

 

 

            ‘I . . . love . . . you . . .’

 

 

 

 

 

 

(2004)




Giorgio & Nicola Pressburger: Homage to the Eighth District (1986)

 

The date is that of the original publication in Italian, Storie dell'Ottavo Distretto (Genoa). Gerald Moore's English translation was published by Readers International in 1990. (Lawrence Venuti ought to read his way through the publications of Readers International.) 

 

The authors were twin brothers, Hungarian Jews who emigrated at the time of the 1956 uprising. The book is about the Jewish community in Budapest, which survived the Holocaust (though rather more than 50% died in it), and which has also survived Communism. Specifically, it's about the area around the Teleky Market.

 

After the war  the scene had changed. My relatives still lived near the great market. But they were in better apartments, of two or three rooms, and lying more distant from one another. The population of the quarter was frighteningly reduced by the Holocaust of the Jews, and there was much more space for the survivors. My own family had advanced a step up the scale of human and social dignity.

 

Here's another passage from another story, beginning in the same way but running a different course:

 

After the war life started up again in the Eighth District. First with a petty black market: with a few ounces of flour - mostly mixed with plaster - with flint stones, saccharine and lard. Then Franja and the other survivors re-established contact with the peasants, getting hold of fresh eggs, a little milk, a few chickens, then hens, then geese, and finally the stalls reopened their shutters and the old ice-boxes were once more filled with artificial ice. The blessing of the Lord again showered upon those little wooden stalls, bringing money with it. But how long could it last?

 

And in another story again, the children who have lived for three months in dreadful conditions in the Temple (to escape the Holocaust) are finally let out when the Russian assault on Budapest (January 1945) makes it too dangerous to stay.

 

"We must send them away from here," he said, not to us but to the secretary. "It's both just and advisable". Soon after this exchange, we children were thrust into the overcoats abandoned on our arrival and conducted downstairs. We were taken outside in groups. It was the first time for ages that I saw the light of day. I lifted my eyes. Two planes were fighting in the grey sky overhead. I saw red tracers speeding from one plane towards the other: two battling angels soared in a sky immersed in the thunder of bombardment. Then, in an instant, the two angels disappeared behind the roof of the temple, still exchanging their red arrows of gunfire. And a moment later an unspeakable thunder shook us and all the buildings around. The bomb had fallen quite nearby. The spectacled Maurer and many more of my companions of those months were carried off by the Angel of Death in that terrible explosion. I still ask myself why.

 

It was a poor area, also populated by Gypsies and poor Christians of various kinds, for example Juliet:

 

She had been a servant all her life and knew no other role. Her consolation was her faith. She went to Mass every morning. An hour later, when Rachel's children woke up, she was ready with the coffee and milk. Even in the days when no one would have advised frequenting the church, she remained devoted to Saint Rita, whose chapel was close by. She had no religious problem so far as the Jews were concerned; she called down the blessing of the saints on them too. She was certain that the good Lord heard their prayers also. In the evening she retired to the basement of the block. There she prayed before a sacred image which never lacked the glory of a lighted candle. She never spoke of her past. With the children and the world in general she was always patient, and, unlike Manci [a Gypsy servant], quite free of ambition. Her long years gradually melted away without leaving a trace. Just as if she had never lived. The wheels of a tram tore her body apart one evening when she was wandering distractedly in the road.

 

That sudden violence is one of the book's motifs.  The stories we believe to be true, but they are shaped into fable structures. Franja, for example, with her fiancé,

 

had exchanged a few little kisses. In those brief moments she, with her acute sense of smell, had detected a strange odour, of camphor or of phenol - of the hospital, in short. "I am a fox in these matters," Franja said of herself, "I can smell everything." And so it proved. After an interminable two-year engagement, the young man came one evening to Franja's house, and that very night her destiny was accomplished. Turning up with cakes and candies at the home of his consenting fiancée, he was seized in the midst of a happy conversation about future arrangements by a terrible fit of coughing, until a huge gob of blood burst from his throat onto the table, which was already prepared for supper. The boy, who had kept his consumption hidden throughout the engagement, died within three weeks - may he rest in God - almost on the eve of his intended wedding. At the sight of so much blood and in the proximity of death, Franja said simply: "You see? I suspected it. I'm a fox."

 

The story ends with a real fox bursting from Franja's grave and attacking the author.

 

As the pieces grid on to each other time-wise (e.g. the end of the war) and place-wise (Eighth District), they are also shaped into stories by a grid-like process: Ilona Weiss's seven lovers, Franja the Fox's sequence of cold perceptions, Selma Grün's decalogue of maxims, Rachel's memory-transformations, and the hated Tibor Schreiber's successive encounters with the author who hates him. Each of these stories are entirely successful at giving a meaning to someone's life. We see that it is easy to give meaning; the easier it is, the more doubtful we are of what meaning this someone's life really has; that it must be quite different to what we are being told (e.g. Timor Schreiber), or perhaps does not have one meaning at all.  This evocation of scepticism is characteristic, and is linked to another characteristic effect: a dialectic between light-heartedness and profound desolation such that, whenever one of these emotions is proposed to us, it tends to evoke the other.   

 

 

(2007)


 

 

Peter Redgrove (1932-2003)

 

 

 

I often think, while I’m reading, that I will stop and explicate one of his poems, but I never do. I think that I’ll seize this vulnerable corner and pin it to the earth – no, I’ll ascend myself into the zenith and once begun, it will all be easy. But this bravado conceals doubt.

 

The facts are, that since 1987 (where I place this writing in my scheme, because this was the year of In the Hall of the Saurians, the first book of his that I read) I have read him continually, far more often than any other British poet of my time, perhaps more than all the others put together. I read him about as often as I enjoy chamomile tea; it is a domestic habit.

 

He is a prolific, accessible writer who attracts gusts of adjectives rather than analysis. You might say that there is an official (almost mainstream) Redgrove who is published by Cape, and a subsidiary Redgrove who is published by small presses, notably Stride. But the suspicion clings that Redgrove’s greatest work may lie in the unpredictable wildness of the latter, e.g. Abyssophone (1995), What the Black Mirror Saw (1997). At least, it does while you are reading them. There have been “Selected Poems” – for example, the 1999 volume chosen by Robin Robertson. It’s a wonderful book, but comparing Robertson’s choice with the whole of a volume such as Assembling a Ghost (1996), I have little sense of a consensus. I like what he has chosen on the whole, but sometimes it’s whimsical (as, no doubt, the poems themselves may be), and I like what he hasn’t chosen just as much.

 

If this paragraph suggests, as it should, a multifarious profusion, this does not mean that Redgrove’s horizons are limitless. It is astonishing to turn back to the poems of the 1950s and ‘60s (me eventually locating Penguin Modern Poets 11, fallen between two chests of drawers as I must have distantly remembered...) and to find in them tones and notions, vast in their potential,  that have entirely disappeared in the later work. The mind of a human being, blessed with such unturmoiled channel into expression, is indeed large.           

 

[This much I had written before hearing the news of Redgrove’s death, from Parkinson’s disease, in June 2003...]

 

You can easily read a whole book of Redgrove’s poems; you rarely pause, even to connect the beginning of a poem with its end. Perhaps the “poems” have no form and are just a matrix in which to hold certain effects, enlivening images which swim past and are gone.  I think that all the poems are good but sketchy and nothing stands out.

 

Well, I’ll give it a try.

 

 

Guns and Wells

 

                        I

 

The artillery-men wait upon the big gun,

They have its banquet piled

And ready in greased pyramids,

They serve the long fat shells like cannelloni,

The gun munches with an explosion.

 

Molten tears silver our countenances,

Vomit of metal plates the cornfields,

Men blow away like smoke in the ringing brisants.

 

No doing of mine, says chef-commandant,

I feed the guns only when they are hungry.

 

                        II

 

She tells me the polished skull of a traitor

Lurks in this well still,

His comrades gave rough justice,

Over the parapet laid his bare neck,

Cutlass-sliced that smuggling head,

Which dropped like a boulder

And is down there to this day, she said,

 

Polished nearly to nothing,

Bobbing in the well-spring,

Folding and unfolding in the polishing water,

Almost glass, and papery-thin ,

Ascending, descending on variable cool water,

Nodding upon a current which is a spine,

Spinning like a film of faintest shadow

Or flexile churchwindow,

Reflating when rain fattens the spring;

 

Then a sunbeam

Strikes down the brick shaft

And there gazes upwards, revolving in the depths,

A golden face; then the sun

 

Goes in and the water goes on polishing.

 

 

(from The Apple-Broadcast, 1981)

 

At first this looks like two poems linked by nothing but a title. The word “Guns” has a way of attracting mates (“guns and butter”, Guns ‘n’ Roses), all more or less explicitly yin-yang combinations.

 

Re-reading it in Selected Poems, I remembered it of course, though it must be a good many years since I first read it. More specifically, I remembered the highlights, which are the cannelloni in the first part and, less obviously, “dropped like a boulder” in the second part. This is a simile that works by being inexact. I immediately start wondering how much a severed human head would weigh, and I realize I don’t know. Probably heavier than I’d think, but not as much as a boulder, more like a big coconut – it would float, for sure.

 

Thinking about the weight of that head, and about the cannelloni, opens up a vista of fellatio. Sex is always present in Redgrove’s poems, though this is not to say that the poem is in some delimiting way about sex. Sex, like weather, is part of the dynamic – it is constant in the poetry, and not a “background“, which implies inactivity.

 

The poem’s two halves have some other things in common. Both are about shafts, and the shafts are both at some point conceived as eating. Both halves are concerned with violent execution, and both, in one way or another aestheticise death. They are fantasies that, in the first half, are employed (by the “chef-commandant”) to escape moral agency; in the second, to suggest that the death has not really happened, or has been followed by a kind of rebirth. None of these resemblances or patterns, however, really lead anywhere. Redgrove’s poems are typically located on an archetypal plane where questions of moral agency are not very relevant; where violences are just energies, whether of death or birth. Hence the frustration of some readers who have accused his poems of being nothing but a thickened, exhilarating surface, invariably fun to read but leaving nothing to explore.

 

Perhaps you will agree with me that there is something unsatisfactory about this criticism. Guns and Wells  has been “pinned down”, all right, but it doesn’t seem the most appropriate thing to do. There’s a discrepancy between the method and the kind of thing it’s operating on; a discrepancy of pace, is how I think of it. For the fact that a certain piece of writing does not attract criticisms of this kind is not necessarily a discredit to the writing; it may be too new, there may be a universal category mistake about what it is, it may not yet have brought into being the necessary discourse that will permit sharing of it. In that time we can’t yet finger it, though we can readily imbibe it, like chamomile tea.

 

“Aestheticise” was a condemnatory word; I want to start again from the way that things in Redgrove’s poems do not make us feel afraid, they don’t make us shudder. Instead, we perceive the treasures of the poem, however bizarre, with a calm sense of wonder. There is an illumination of this in the important pages “Notes of a Gelsemium Psyche” in What the Black Mirror Saw (1997). This describes the weather-induced hauntings and depressions of the author,  then adds:

 

I have tried to keep my doors open. I am sure that allopathic treatment would close them, so I would at no time seek relief from the mechanical medicines. I have kept a dream journal in great detail for more than twenty years. It is this, and the disciplines of writing poetry, that have provided me with images whose energies may interact with me instead of creating inarticulate fear and disturbance.

 

(2003)

 

*

 

A Speaker for the Silver Goddess (Stride, 2006).

 

 

[This review first appeared in Intercapillary Space, March 2006]

 

Peter Redgrove’s death in 2003 has not, as yet, stinted the flow of new poetry collections in his name. Stride published Sheen in 2004, describing it as his final book. Last year Cape announced The Harper for publication in mid-2006, also calling it his final book. But that’s now been overtaken by A Speaker for the Silver Goddess, which I wasn’t expecting at all.

 

In the absence of any explanation I find myself speculating about the origins of these poems; since all but one are written in the 3-step lines that were first seen in From the Virgil Caverns (2002), they are certainly late work. In the poem that then introduced them (“Arrivals”) the form was compared with a winding stair and was associated with last words before departure:

 

Close to the ghost:

                  his knowledge went, and mine followed,

                                       catch it before

It leaves like a ghost,

                  on these stepped verses;

                                       on these stairs met together,

These radii.

 

Here the idea is re-meditated in “The Ayenbite of Inwet”:

 

Outness or the vaporisation

                  of myself, the mist within

                                       that rooms itself

Into steps like pages

 

Redgrove undoubtedly admitted a degree of vaporisation into these poems of his last phase; he knew he was dying and allowed himself new, more intuitive methods of transcribing the psychic material. As in the thrillingly optimistic vision of Death described here in “The Wall”, he was trying to seize an opportunity to make new observations while “At last / The Wall is down”. The vaporisation is as much about connections as disconnections; thus “The Immense Dew of Falmouth” begins with a self-quotation from another poem, “Who is the Higher Penis Here?” – the quotation concerns the harmonious oil of doorlocks, but the two poems take it in completely different directions. 

 

Nevertheless, I think some of this writing is in an unfinished state. For instance (later in “The Ayenbite of Inwet”):

 

                          having hoped to be relieved

                                            from a depression by the wind

           The impending rain falls

                           while the urban poets cannot understand

                                            these struggles or submit...

           As for the presence of a loved one’s

                            internal fountains...

           While in the clairvoyant’s house

                            all the mirrors deepen etc

 

It’s a tricky judgment to make, but to me these disjunctions (so familiar elsewhere) do not seem Redgrovian. He is essentially a poet of semantic clarity: a poet who amazes you by effortlessly saying what you would think semantic clarity couldn’t say. I think this is only half a poem, half painful notes.

 

There are indications of unfinishedness elsewhere, too. The opening line of “Mystery Tale”

 

            After my beloved parents have tasted of Life

 

promises a main clause in the present or future tense, but we never get one. And in “Underneathness” – but this is much too good not to quote at length:

 

                                           while, further indoors

           Under my shirt-tails

                            a minute medallion of shit-stain

                                           from a fart:

           Its tiny ginger shines like gold

                            in my sky-blue underpants.

                                           ‘The sun that shines in the dark,’

            Remarks Satinhammer

                            in her name the Source,

                                           ‘Somewhere, I am sure,

           Liszt wrote piano for this gas, his

                            priestly silver mane

                                           black with sweat,

          His heavenly energy expounded in Grand Pianism;

                            under his cassock,

                                            horse-farts in a minor key.

 

Even in this shorn extract you can see the speed of Redgrove’s thinking. It all seems so relaxed, this development towards a resounding image, but just try summarizing it! However, “name the Source” is surely an authorial memo that was meant to be replaced by some outrageously fanciful book-title, and “Somewhere” is the beginning of a new sentence by the author, not a continuation of Satinhammer’s words. 

 

The corpus of Redgrove’s poems is vast, and the kind of thing he does is something most of us feel we are by now extremely familiar with. My lurking question  (I suspect other readers’ too) is how seriously to think about him. When I consider the fertility of his achievements, the quantifiable value of what he has had to say to me, I see few British poets of the last half-century come close to him. His range of knowledge is formidable, though he has rivals, but perhaps in none of them is the knowledge more relevant, in other words turned to more continuously poetic account.

 

But in many ways he hardly fits my idea of a great poet, an “important” poet. He has never been urgently and irately discussed like Pound or Ashbery, nor even Hughes or Larkin; his solid middle-class pragmatism seems to have been a way of avoiding what seem like the critical artistic questions for a poet in our time; he was a good chap. He did not provoke torrents of bourgeois indignation – it was only literary critics who occasionally said “this isn’t poetry”. The sunniness and buffoonery (in fact a triumph over bipolar depression) don’t strike us as having the “high seriousness” we still residually associate with a great poet; among the canonized, you have to go back to Chaucer and Langland (a major influence on Redgrove) to find anything like such “low seriousness”. Perhaps it’s best to just enjoy this. Perhaps we are all deferring judgment in case biographies show him not to have been quite such a good chap after all; paradoxically, he might then seem more important.

 

I suppose the question for most readers is how far “A Speaker for the Silver Goddess” adds to this immense body of achievement. Sometimes, it’s true, what fires my enthusiasm is only a moment in a looser continuum:

 

         [of a dish of mercury]

                                     a splash running in bright orbits

 

         Jellyfish meat

                        as clear as glass

 

         [peacocks]

                                     their shrill,

         Intolerably short mating-calls,

 

But there are a few more poems here that do add substantially to my idea of what he can do:  “In the Garden of the Well”, “Shit and Spirit”, “Scrotal Education”, “At the University”...  I’m so pleased that these poems weren’t condemned to await a cramped afterlife in the appendices of scholarship, but now, in their own time, have a chance to flaunt their colours.

 

*

 

(The following is a review of two volumes of the “Peter Redgrove Library” series published by Stride in 2006: The Sleep of the Great Hypnotist (novel first published in 1979) and The Colour of Radio, a collection of Redgrove’s essays and interviews. First published in Intercapillary Space.)

 

Besides his vast profusion of poetry Peter Redgrove also wrote books in prose. The most important, I think, are the books about life matters, especially the The Wise Wound (with Penelope Shuttle, 1976) and The Black Goddess and the Sixth Sense (1987). Stride’s new series, The Peter Redgrove Library, reprints the seven novels: the one I’ve got here is The Sleep of the Great Hypnotist, first published in 1979. It also features an eighth volume called The Colour of Radio which is a collection of Redgrove’s essays and interviews edited by Neil Roberts.

 

The Colour of Radio will be an essential volume for Redgrove students; I think of it as crowded concourse thick with signposts that you want to follow up; but since I am not a student I would always rather read a book that was meant as a book and I won’t linger too long over it.  About half the book is interviews and Redgrove is a brilliant interviewee, but in the mass these are wearing. You can’t really get stuck in to pages that skitter so quickly from topic to topic. Here’s a flavour of it, from a 1987 interview (“The Science of the Subjective”) with Roberts himself:

 

Contemporary poetry has a very strange fate in England I think as compared to America and possibly on the European continent. We seem to be party-going poets. [...] I think one of the reasons for the loss of nerve at the present time is that the scientists have given us a picture of nature which is competitive, alien, empty, mechanical, and a universe in which we are complete strangers, and in which – talking about continuums ­– there is no continuum between ourselves and nature. This is the great romantic quest, that a continuum between nature and mankind should be proved ... Science still proceeds on behaviouristic principles. Scientists, for instance, have to be very careful in testing drugs, or in doing any psychological experiment, not to allow suggestion to enter into it, no suggestion of the result, no placebo effect must be allowed in. But the placebo effect is a very wonderful thing indeed. It means you can take a sugar pill believing it will do you good and it will do you good. This is worth looking into I would have thought, but it’s the very thing that science keeps out: the power here – the Romantic idea – of the mind over the body, that the material world is responsive to the energies of the mind, or to immaterial energies. We live in a situation where these things are systematically undervalued. The Enlightenment was concerned to display everything visibly, with every factor controlled – and this is when the idea of the scientific controlled experiment came in. The Romantics were in contradiction to this. They wanted to know what was invisible. They protested against ‘the tyranny of the eye’. There is so much in Romantic poetry about weather for instance. Weather influences us profoundly. It is an invisible and visible series of changes which alter our moods and alter our access to ourselves. We are inspired or depressed by the weather. It is both objective and subjective in its effects. Thirty per cent of the population are intensely weather-sensitive. There is a kind of feeling-knowledge of the world which arises from meteorological changes. There is a response, an invisible response which is not accounted for in medical science. The facts are that very many diseases, very many sicknesses and illnesses, are intensified by the processes of storm. Heart palpitations sometimes synchronize with radio static from storms. You can watch, on a computer, the meteorological pattern say over the city of New York, and superimpose the deaths from heart attacks, and you can see that these two patterns follow each other, and there is a causal connection which appears to be electrical. We know that many people suffer from weather-sensitivity to a psychiatric extent – you get this very much in Cornwall, which has a great deal of weather as they say. But what happens? How are these people treated? Well, of course, the tranquillizer and antidepressant. There is no study of medical climatology, there is no school of it in this country as far as I know. There is no school of bio-meteorology. This romantic thing, the weather, this daily demonstration of our response to the whole situation of the earth and the atmosphere, the temperature of it, the humidity of it and the electricity of it – we can’t deny this any more – is just ignored, because of course, to adjust this, to treat weather-sickness – well, there are certainly herbal and homeopathic remedies for it, and another solution is to move, which may not be viable economically. What is viable economically and which props up our system is to prescribe another of these invented drugs, at great cost. The alternative is to seek union with the invisible but actual world, as the Romantics did. 

 

I quote this, repetitions and all, because I think that way it reveals so much more about the speaker. We can pick up his missionary zeal, his perfect confidence in the importance of his poetic aspirations and how they are completely identified with his experiences and interests beyond poetry, his jouissance, his profoundly democratic idea that poetry is all of a piece with what everyone is doing the whole time. We can grasp the age and background of the speaker; both his old-fashionedness and his modernity. We can register the peculiar distinctiveness of his use of the word “which”, a means of giving impressively assured answers, not instantly testable, to questions we might not have thought to ask. (That discursive structure underlies the poems too, which may truly be called which-craft – but I see I’ve caught the manner...) 

 

To understand this passage more fully it’s helpful to know that Redgrove’s own involvement with psychoanalysis arose in part from severe weather-induced depressions; also, that during his unhappy period in advertising he had written (unused) promotional material for the new wonder-drug, Thalidomide. Some of the most worthwhile pieces in The Colour of Radio are autobiographical: the best is “The Alchemical Marriage of Redgrove and Shuttle”, about what was creatively the most important event in Redgrove’s life, his second marriage. There are also a few pieces about other writers, but only a few, and it’s easy to see why: Redgrove was an acute and ardent reader (as the rest of the collection sufficiently demonstrates), but being so engaged with his own vast experiment he really lacked the patience, the odd sort of self-abnegation, that becomes interested in registering something like the totality of someone else’s vision.  

 

What comes across from The Colour of Radio as a whole is the seriousness of Redgrove’s project: it will not lend much support to the blurb-writers’ untroubling placement of the poetry as “tumultuous imaginative flights, exhilarating, glittering epiphanies” (I’m making a collage from the jacket of the Selected Poems). Gentleness and good humour came naturally to the poet, he knew they were positives, but you can only go so far with the poetry before you have to grapple with fundamental challenges to our belief-systems.

 

*

 

The other principal thing that I took from it, personally, was a consciousness that it’s impossible to come to grips adequately with Redgrove’s work while continuing to neglect Penelope Shuttle’s; I mean her own work, not just the collaborations, which include The Wise Wound, Alchemy for Women (1997), and two of the novels in this series.

 

The Sleep of the Great Hypnotist isn’t one of these, though. It’s a novel about hypnotism, and it was written in ten days under self-hypnosis.

 

To the outsider hypnotism connotes two rather ill-matched ideas: a medium for various clinically-effective healing therapies, and a sensational kind of stage-performance. Though neither of these is exactly like Redgrove’s own idea of “(with pun intended) trance-formation” (which identifies a continuum between hypnotism and such other consciousness-altering activities as having sex, switching on a TV, reading a poem, and feeling a cloud pass overhead), both leave their mark on the book for good and ill. With the therapeutic aspect one might associate the long expository passages, informatively nutritious but barely made fictional by the interposition of such phrases as “she realized”, “she had heard, too” and “John explained”. With the theatrical aspect one might associate the wild comedy and the various scenes of public performance; a lecture, a conjuror, a clairvoyant, the televised showdown; but also a sort of cheapness about the execution: such hand-to-mouth scene-setting as “Speaking Water was called John Ismay then, having taken the surname of the people who had adopted him after his rescue from the tenement fire in which his parents had perished”;  or the representation of rising excitement by long sequences cobbled together with “and”s and “then”s. In as much as The Sleep of the Great Hypnotist reminds me of other novels, they tend to be genre novels: Mills & Boon, whodunnits and sf.

 

Yet all this is more artful than it may at first appear. The book is economically structured as a flow of selected scenes connected without comment. It is hinged into two halves, the first part focussed on the hypnotist father and the second part on his daughter; around the midway point both break through in the first person. Here is the daughter speaking:

 

I recall another time when I was frightened of a thunderstorm, and my father spoke comforting words to me, and I saw kind faces in the clouds uttering the loud words, and when the lightning came it came slowly, or so I saw it, and it was a jagged slice into a sweet fruit whose juice was light which I could taste. Later, I heard of the magical use of fires, that ‘opened the doors of distance’.

 

This jagged slice, both comforting and violent, is beguiling on the surface, but there isn’t much of that sort of writing: most of what the book is doing waits just beneath the surface. It takes a while to grasp that hypnotism is not a simple positive here but an ambiguous medium for the father’s manipulation as well as comfort, that the episodes are not just clunkily joined together but carry on a continuous “subvocalized” conversation with each other. There’s a dark-mirror reflection of this passage in the apparently casual words of the dying father, putting his daughter into deep trance:

 

Do you remember the chain store magnate? I cured him of premature ejaculation. I couldn’t stop him from coming in two minutes, but at least I could make it seem longer when I had taught him hypnosis with my Oscilloscope! It may be the dead live faster than we do, streaking from molecule to molecule in their flux of changes. It may be that they live very slowly, like a mountain range. Hypnosis will enable you to travel these deeps, these accelerations in your human form. Set up the machine.

 

It takes a while for the tranced author to locate his real centres of interest. The hoofbeats that rattle through the book spring from this odd image of Eden in the sketchy early pages: “Here I am, the Lord God, walking in my garden in the evening, and I’ve got an itchy skin, like a horse or a deer has an itchy skin in the autumn, when the hair gets all dry, the pelt is dusty, the reddish-brown pelt of the Lord God...”. These hooves get into the Oscilloscope and keep coming out of it again (it only slowly renews its materials, thus after the Hypnotist’s death his face at first keeps reappearing on the screen). And the book itself acts rather like the Oscilloscope. At the party where he meets his future wife, she takes off his shoe and taps his be-socked foot: it looks the wrong shape and it returns a hollow sound. Later, the daughter drops herself into a dream while the Padstow ‘Obby ‘Oss still capers outside her hotel. The dream is of the ‘Oss:

 

As he swings, blood flies from his mouth and blooms on the white clothes of the dancers. The celebration moves closer and Angela sees George Frederick Pfoundes in his black psychiatrist’s jacket and pinstriped trousers dancing in the place of the ‘Oss, his mouth full of blood, his eyes glaring with hypnotism. His buttons glitter, and his brilliantined hair is swept up into tall plumes. [...] There is a parson in the surrounding crowd. He reaches into his white linen jacket and takes a circular white biscuit from his pocket and munches it slowly. Blood runs down his chin over his dog-collar. [...] the Teazer with a decisive gesture points his sceptre downwards towards the ground. With a dreadful hacking cough blood pours from her father’s mouth, his legs crumple and he falls forward onto his hands, blood vomiting in a pool in front of him. [...] His face curls like burning paper and his clothes empty as the lapping pool grows. It steams a little, and his papery, empty eyes settle into it, their lids closing. The sun must now be directly overhead, because the long street suddenly turns golden. Angela steps into the blood, which has turned golden as sunlight.

 

This is an afternoon dream and a menstrual dream; when she wakes up, “the late red sunlight is on her counterpane”. Most of the dream’s other elements, for example the communion wafer, are transformations of the morning’s sights and thoughts in Padstow. But as the elements snap together we can appreciate the dream’s revelatory over-determination. When the father makes love he goes for a ride on his penis, “this hollow charger or hobby-horse of an organ”. When the daughter exorcises him in sex the hooves are briefly stilled:  “The Oscilloscope speakers were beating out silence”. But afterwards, combined with the promise of a child is “A faint rushing, as of distant horses’ hooves galloping nearer but still very fast and faint...”. Her lover is an older man who happens to be a medium. Like the recurrent deaths of the ‘Obby ‘Oss, this story can never really come to an end, it is cyclical. Beneath the surface of cheap, perky entertainment, the “trance-formed” reader is summoned into a depth-novel. 

 

             

(2003, 2006)

 

 

 

 

 


Frederik Pohl: Narabedla Inc. (1988)

 

 

I retrieved this from the non-recyclable skip at the dump (they can’t process hardcovers, so never buy them). It had been in Wilts County Library but was WITHDRAWN and already looked ancient. I had no thought but to accept the random exposure to sf. Judging from the bites on my wrist, I retrieved some other stuff too. My plan was, not to enjoy what I was reading but to close the door on it here. It hasn’t really worked out like that.

 

Pohl’s method of making sf by reconstructing is well-documented. As with the vision of Norah Platt’s disconnected body-parts at the “barber’s”, the book sails joyfully past aesthetics, and they turn out not to matter too much; it clunks a bit, but it’s zestful and funny and plays a few tricks with your mind.

Narabdela is Aldebaran backwards, the red eye of Taurus, 68 light-years away (I think). I saw it last week and now I’ve been to the second moon of the seventh planet.

 

She had said ten minutes, but actually I was there in five. Of course, Tricia Madigan wasn’t. ..I looked round at the square – not at the repellent monster-murdering-man centerpiece of it – just trying to make sense of what I saw. Each of the streets that radiated from the square was a different style and period of architecture. There were thatched-roof cottages, like Norah Platt’s. There were high-rent-district ranch houses, like the one I borrowed from Malcolm Porchester. There were townhouse condo rows, streets of brownstone fronts, white frame houses with the kind of porches you see in old Andy Hardy movies.

 

I looked up at the “sky” for help, but there was no help there. It was, I realized, a lot like the “sky” I’d seen in Henry Davidson-Jones’s office in the World Trade Center.... I turned at last to look at the agonized face of the man being crushed by the monster in the statue... did they have to show it so graphically?

 

The “sky” is a roof, as Nolly sees even now. It’s also not a statue, only an execution in slow time – as in Don Giovanni. It wasn’t the World Trade Center but a go-box to a yacht. Davidson-Jones is about 200 years old. The real sky is a lot of starlight while they’re darkside; the Hyades look very close – I’m not sure if that would be right. But Tricia really is a Texas baton-twirler who can make her hair any colour she likes. This is also Disneyland, isn’t it? But Pohl’s view of how Nolly’s consciousness registers another planet is credible – the completely strange and the completely commonplace all mixed up. It was the kind of spot Pohl had been knocking around for years, of course.

 

Pohl was born in 1919 and was into sf early. Pohl’s social consciousness has been a thread in sf forever (it was always one way to go with it), most notably in his Kornbluth collaborations from the 50s such as The Space Merchants, which registers the consumerism of the era of cars with fins, household appliances, and Vance Packard’s books about advertising. Pohl’s most productive time as a non-collaborating author came later, from the mid-70s onwards. The interest in society and social responsibility and moral conundra is manifest throughout Narabedla Inc, along with amused interests in science, accountancy, working out in the gym, opera and testosterone. The latter two are a part of the book that Pohl transforms out of James M. Cain’s Serenade (1938). Pohl good-naturedly severs most of the raw and thoroughly non-pc power of that book, resolves the effeminizing Winston Hawes into the inter-planetary Davidson-Jones, and produces a medical explanation (adult mumps) for the swollen glands that affect both the baritone-hero’s voice and his testicles; in Serenade, this was all about loss of toro.

 

The name “Narabedla” isn’t Pohl’s invention either, because in 1957 there was Falcons from Narabedla by Marion Zimmer Bradley, a prolific author of science fantasy who was also a gay feminist and wrote I am a Lesbian (1962) under the pseudonym of Lee Chapman. She died in 1999 and her ashes were scattered on Glastonbury Tor.

 

Pohl was a super-fit sixty-nine when he wrote Narabedla Inc – he’s still writing today, I think – but it’s only natural that serious illness should be another of its prominent themes. As Rosmarie Waldrop has reminded us, via Tristan Tsara, collage produces self-portrait; and that’s how Narabedla Inc sunnily comes across.

 

You’re not looking for prose style here, but after you’ve snapped it up for the story you still have little memory-lapses of radiant oddness like these:

 

So he does like a dog when hangs out his tongue, only Barak don’t have a tongue, so he gets his cooling from evaporation in that ugly patch of fur by his dipstick, you know? He just leaks into it and lets it evaporate to cool off.

 

all three of the little kids hopped over the fence. Whistling and chirping in joy, they ran after the scurrying mice. Then each of them picked up one mouse by the tail and swallowed it. I could see the little animals writhing and struggling as the went sliding down those transparent digestive tracts.

 

 

(2006)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 
Jeffrey Archer: A Twist in the Tale (1988)

 

 

 

Anyone familiar with the dire literary reputation of Jeffrey Archer’s books will understand why, in the end, I decided to go for a collection of short stories. The actual desire to read him, scarcely (I admit) very urgent, originated in a hotel foyer in Malta in January, 2000.

 

I supposed then that some of the obloquy that came his way must be undeserved. He had been a prominent member of a government that was universally detested by intellectuals; so I expected some prejudice. And then, the plot of his first novel (idly leafed through in the foyer) suggested more than a hint of John Buchan, another Conservative politician some seventy years earlier; a popular author whose books I happened to like. I could well imagine, however, that any modern follower in that line would be exposed to critical condemnation.

 

Alas, I was disappointed in my anticipation, and the book really is bad – so bad that even those who themselves would hardly class as sophisticated readers could make great play with it. This makes it difficult to write about (I have written, and deleted, numerous paragraphs at this point).

 

What does “bad” mean? It means that the composition does not accept my values; and that I hardly understand what values it lives by.  It means that I am experiencing an instinct to kill it, perhaps with elegant dispatch or, probably more effective, by not writing about it.

 

The style of the book is unadorned and by most standards barely competent.

 

“Certainly,” said Christopher, and began the task of undoing the larger package while Margaret worked on the smaller one.

 

“I shall need to have these looked at by an expert,” said the official once the parcels were unwrapped.

 

Any author wedded to conventional standards of good writing would put a line through all that, replacing the “clumsy” or “laboured” presentation with something swift like “They unpacked the carpets”. But, of course, a radically different standard is at work here; one will only be able to grasp it when one finally sees that the original text is in fact “just right”.

 

I quite like this story, in which Christopher and Margaret represent the readers’ view of themselves, a worthy pair who are appalled by vulgar ostentation (reminiscent, in that respect, of any bonding pair in any Mills & Boon book). Christopher and Margaret are a childless couple who work hard, “pore over maps” before their holidays, are devoted to each other, and hope to land an authentic bargain that is strictly within their means. The story, such as it is, contrasts their own behaviour with that of Ray and Melody Kendall-Hume, a dreadful couple; vain, insensitive luxury-yacht-owners who are deservedly ripped off by an astute Turkish carpet dealer. Then the dealer (I fear, somewhat improbably) gives up a slice of his profit in order to reward Christopher and Margaret for their genuine appreciation of first-class carpets with what amounts to a fabulous gift. But my paraphrase is already starting to mislead and to seek relief in a certain irony; the improbability would not be noticed by Archer’s true audience. 

 

Here is a summary of the other stories; in the circumstances, much the most useful and eloquent thing I can supply.  1. A man punches his unfaithful mistress, accidentally killing her, but gets his rival put away for murder (TWIST: he withholds from us until the last page that he is the foreman of the jury). 2. An upright Nigerian, investigating corruption, tries to persuade a Swiss banker to betray the names of his account-holders (TWIST: he has stolen money himself and wants to open an account). 3. A young man is prevented by his authoritarian father from working at the car factory; he is forced to take a job at the Savoy and becomes one of the world’s leading chefs, thanks to the father whose firmness he now appreciates. 4. A man receives a foreign decoration (3rd Class); the quality of the decoration is poor, mere brass and glass, and because of a rivalry going back to childhood he is induced to pay Aspreys a fantastic sum to make a superior copy of the original; the foreign ruler spots this and adroitly grabs his fabulous copy by honouring him with an upgrade to 2nd Class – then he presents the purloined copy to the Queen (as 1st Class). 5. A female narrator describes how she ended up with a man called Roger (TWIST: we are “led up the garden path” because she is actually a cat). 6. After the war a former POW sticks up for the nicer of his Japanese camp officials and saves them from execution. They end up running an electronics empire and, when he becomes a Dean, shower his cathedral with donations. (TWIST: the ex-Major is only in charge of a factory, but the ex-Corporal turns out to be the company President). 7. A chess-player asks a gorgeous but apparently not very skilled newcomer back to his flat for games of double-or-quits chess – money on his side against stripping on hers. She thrashes him in the last game; she’s in fact a chess champion. 8. The President of the Wine Society is challenged by a sneering rich type to name some wines from his cellar; he gets them all wrong, but only because the butler has been swapping the wines with inferior stuff and passing on the originals to the local inn, whose winelist has a deservedly high reputation. 9. A man decides to kill another man who he thinks has seduced his wife (by faking a skiing accident). The attempt falls short of murder, but it turns out that his wife didn’t give in anyway (TWIST: at the ski resort she knew all along what her husband was up to). 10. Two men have a violent public quarrel at the golf club, and one sues the other for slander. It ends in an out-of-court settlement (TWIST: they are in league; it’s a tax fiddle.) 11. A Rabbi’s son tells in a letter how he fell in love with a woman who once mocked him; they are kept apart by their families; the woman dies in childbirth, her daughter soon after, and the man kills himself (TWIST: his father the rabbi is not reading the letter for the first time; he has read it every day for ten years.)   

 

 

[I have now read one of his full-length books, A Matter of Honour (1997). This is a much “better” book, that is to say a book I feel easier about admitting, because it conforms to a finely-honed popular genre, in this case the thriller/spy novel. The author of such a work is relatively insignificant, since most of its power is generated by tried and tested mythical images (for example, the amateur on the run who is unable to put his trust in his own side, only in complete strangers). The values in this book are identical to those embodied in Christopher and Margaret – surprisingly domestic, and reminiscent of the Daily Mail group of newspapers, who seem almost single-handedly responsible for the admiring blurbs produced by the publishers. If I wanted to explore the Archer world more closely, I think I’d begin (though of course I couldn’t end) with his writing about the arts. In the short story we learnt that the secret of a first-class Turkish carpet is the number of knots per square inch. In the novel, the genuine icon can be known by the tsar’s silver seal on the reverse. Aesthetic value can be recognized if it has an objective bottom line, like a bank balance. Expertise in Shakespeare means being able to recite the names of his 37 plays (while being tortured in the Russian embassy – you make your escape with a triumphant crack about the Two Noble Kinsmen). But Archer (or his audience) is impatient with the intangibles of art. One of the characters, Robin Beresford, is a (female) double-bass player. A hefty woman, and the most impressive thing about her technique is knowing how to carry the instrument. I can’t help being reminded of the joke: Q. What’s the first thing you get taught by an X  piano teacher? A. How to move the piano. (“X” stands for a nationality or social group that the speaker insults.) Robin is the most winning personality in the book, and we almost begin to think that the RPO, like the British cycling team, are something to cheer for. But Archer can’t resist making a reassuring joke to remind us that after all the men in the orchestra are all nancy boys. Elsewhere, a professor Brunweld is resigned to spending three days in the Pentagon, away from his demanding family: “He would never have a better opportunity to settle down and read the collected works of Proust”. This is a joke against both academics and Proust (supposed a monumentally prolix bore who would take fully three days to read).]

 

 

 

(2003)

 

 

 


 

John Maynard Smith: Did Darwin Get It Right? (1989)

 

 

 

The author would agree, I’m sure, that this is in no sense an “important” book. Indeed, it’s a purely manufactured book, just a gathering up of recent reviews and a few other bits and pieces. Sometimes whole paragraphs get repeated in almost the same words. A couple of highly technical pieces are included to gain our respect, but cannot seriously expect to be absorbed by the general reader (a supposedly obsolete term which returns energetically to life in the context of popular science books).

 

Nevertheless, there’s a certain appropriateness in all this since one of the general problems with science books for a general readership is that the author doesn’t altogether take them seriously. He (it usually is “he”) is perceptibly doing something that he thinks is rather fun, but it isn’t the real business and he is all too humbly aware that he isn’t a professional writer. (It’s quite the opposite of humble, really.)

 

This is an attitude that has developed slowly. It was not there when Darwin wrote. Even in the early “New Naturalists”, speckled with Keats and the Georgians, it was apparent that the authors considered themselves part of the human race. A narrow and educated part, no doubt; but the writer and the reader are both assumed to belong to it. Since that time, a bridge has collapsed.

 

It’s impossible to imagine someone brought up on a diet of the arts writing like this: “First, to give an accurate account of one’s part in great events it is not sufficient to be frank; it is also necessary to be self-critical.” (This is in a review of Watson.) He produces the sentence with a flourish, the semi-colon is clinching. He expects, all too obviously, a little ripple of applause. But in this matter of truth-telling we would be much more circumspect. “Self-critical”, like “frank”, is a term that we don’t use with much confidence. If anything, we believe that to be “self-critical” is likely to be a self-deception, and “frankness” can at least “betray” a truth. Or perhaps we don’t believe it, but that’s the kind of thing we feel impelled to say. 

 

He continues: “The other reason why this account must be taken with a grain of salt is that the author is a natural raconteur. I like telling stories myself and I recognize the technique. The best stories are true stories which have been bent a little to meet the requirements of art...” etc. If I suggest that before you got to that last sentence you already saw it coming, perhaps that sufficiently defines the mode of discourse that is being employed here. We don’t feel surprised that the forms of literature with which Watson’s book is favourably compared are science fiction and the whodunnit. We expect to hear something from Alice in Wonderland, though in this case we have to wait until page 183.

 

But does this matter at all? Why should anyone have Bartok and Dada in their repertoire? (Would you demand it from your friends?) Isn’t it cherishable enough that Smith knows his biology, is strong in mathematics and has clearly identified certain rather tricky problems with which he has tussled illuminatingly and at length?

 

I think it does matter. Consider this argument: “One way of being silly is to suggest that those engaged in fundamental research should at the same time worry about the possible applications of their as yet unmade discoveries. This suggestion would make some sense if the scientist were presented with a little box containing the secret of DNA. He could then devote his energies to thinking about the possible consequences of opening the box. But life is not like that. Scientific discovery is difficult. No one who reads Professor Watson’s book will regard it as a sensible suggestion that he ought to have been thinking about the social consequences of his discovery, in the unlikely event of his getting there before Pauling.”

 

When I first read this, I assumed that the argument is actually hidden in there somewhere, but on consideration it isn’t. “Difficulty” cannot alter the moral position, as if it made a difference whether the box had a flip-lid or was padlocked. Our battery of intelligence and resources could manage a little extra difficulty. Nor does the idea that Watson (in this case) did not know he was going to make a great discovery. He was trying for it and being paid to try - what else was he doing, discovering by accident? And why should it be assumed that Watson think out the consequences all on his own? In fact, the passage reveals quite openly that secrecy and urgency are inherent in the competitive game, assuming you choose to take part. Scientific research is conducted according to the rules of capitalism. I can’t make this passage into anything more respectable than a selfish lament: But if we have to be responsible, we can’t get on with playing our game! 

 

Now that I’ve been critical, I must say that Smith’s is quite an agreeable voice. He even makes a good point about the problem of TV voiceovers on science programs (his own fingers were rather badly burnt) - so he does see that there is a problem with communication between scientists and the rest of us.

 

I think he is rather too untroubled by his own statement, that “species are real entities” (p. 9). A species is not real in the same way that an individual is real - and even the latter is problematic. Some of his unhappiness with the concept of “group selection” could have been more decisively expressed if he had kept this clearly in view.

 

As often, I think that it’s unfortunate that most prominent evolutionists are zoologists. He seems to agree that parthenogenesis is more likely to lead to extinction, but dandelions and brambles do not seem to make a good case. (He knows this, of course, but doesn’t pursue the complexities of the issue.)

 

A book such as this (we take it for granted, of course) is not a book about nature. It is not full of rolling meadows and humming insects. There’s no reason why it should be, I know. But this really rather remarkable fact does show that Smith is quite wrong to characterize science in general as “the most successful attempt yet on the part of mankind to satisfy their curiosity about themselves and the world they live in”. As if the whole process were sufficiently motivated by mere passive desire to understand the world around us - how beautiful, a society of wonderstruck nature-lovers! If those engaged in “fundamental research” are paid to allow their curiosity free rein, it isn’t so that the rest of us can satisfy our curiosity. No - molecular biology has always been about assembling the techniques to make genetic engineering possible.

 

 

 

 

(2002)

 




A.S. Byatt: Possession (1991)

 

A book that I've always been distantly aware of but never expected to read - however, my Dad bought me a copy and the day came when, afflicted with toothache, I thought I'd try it. And my toothache didn't put me off - which is weird, because it had ruined Purcell and placed Leevi Lehto right out of the question. Possession is really a treat for duvet days; be aware that spoilers will follow.

 

*

 

The two poets:

 

They both had to be made, and they couldn't be made from nothing. Randolph Henry Ash is Browning adapted - about 66% Browning. (There is a little of Arnold, too, so far as the Norse epic is concerned.) This is obliquely confessed, inasmuch as so prominent a literary figure as Browning is never mentioned in the text; nor do we hear the term "dramatic monologue" (Ash once speaks of "dramatized monologues"). Byatt needed to be cautious about muddying her presentation. But when Ash draws very near to Browning, we are doubtless meant to notice fondly:

 

e.g. Gods, Men and Heroes (Ash, 1856); Men and Women (Browning, 1855). 

 "Mummy Possest" (Ash); "Mr Sludge, the Medium" (Browning)

Cromwell (verse play - Ash); Strafford (verse play - Browning)

etc. 

 

Or consider the passage in which Ash writes in a letter of both Paracelsus and D.D. Home.

 

And admire the list of popular Ash poems, the ones that the child Roland (hang on, what was that I just wrote?) remembers being read by his mother: "I grew up on his idea of Sir Walter Raleigh, and his Agincourt poem and Offa on the Dyke." With Ash as with Browning (thinking of Dramatic Lyrics) the popular poems are evidently a different lot from the ones discussed by textual critics such as the adult Roland himself. Obviously this list rouses a vague memories of e.g. the "Cavalier Tunes" and "How They Brought the Good News" and "At the 'Mermaid'", though Ash is made to stick more to British themes, compared with Browning's omnivorous pan-European historical palate.   

 

But when it comes to the poetry, Byatt has a freedom to deviate from her basic model. Sometimes indeed the poetry is very Browningesque - say, the opening of "Swammerdam", but it is both Browning minus and Browning plus. Ash inherits little of Browning's characteristic ellipses and tics, the wildness and simultaneous impediment of exposition that Chesterton memorably compared to a knot in a piece of wood. There are no shortenings - o' , i', 'twere, 'tis - and no outrageous meters or newly-invented stanza-forms. Nor, as we've seen, does the London-based Ash reveal much of Browning's obsession with Mediterranean scenes, humanists, painters, musicians... On the other hand, Ash has a particular interest in Victorian science, geology - natural history - Darwinism (the sorts of interest that we wish Browning had had: often a brilliant observer of nature's surfaces, he never wants to investigate them). Ash's blank verse is a little more early-twentieth-century in manner than Browning's: for example, he favours the short sentence that occupies the first half of a line:

 

But I had other leanings. Did they come

 

These things are there. The garden and the tree

 

Browning rarely if ever uses this kind of clipped expression. Or consider this, from elsewhere in "Swammerdam":

 

                                          .... ride with the wind

To burning lands beneath a copper sun

Or never-melted mountains of green ice

Or hot dark secret places in the steam

Of equatorial forests, where the sun

Strikes far above the canopy, where men

And other creatures never see her light

Save as a casual winking lance that runs

A silver shaft between green dark and dark.

 

That vision of rainforest was unknown to Victorian poets, it was an idea that only became familiar later, in the age of aeroplanes and ecology. 

 

Christabel Lamotte's poetry cannot be pinned down to a primary model in the same way - nor was it so necessary. As a comparatively obscure (verging on amateur) author, you'd expect her to experiment with a number of different styles and sometimes to be quite generic; that she should have an integrity of character rather than a formed manner. Her published short lyrics are like Christina Rossetti ("Christabel's reputation, modest but secure, rests on the restrained and delicate lyrics.." - as the early twentieth-century Veronica Honiton is made to say,  - a sentence so exact in its satire that I'm sure I remember reading it before). Her unpublished lyrics are more like Emily Dickinson. The extracts from Melusina and the City of Is remind me as much of Tennyson as anyone - and they're very good.     

 

*

 

Byatt has a lot of fun not just with Veronica Honiton, and Dr Nest's Helmeets, but with the feminist essays of the present: Herself Herself Involve, LaMotte's Strategies of Evasion. One of the things she expresses very well is how the Victorian women can't quite seize this feminism, they are stuck in a patriarchal world and its thought-forms, and must be unhappy or make their happiness by negotiation with it: Blanche, Christabel and Ellen all face the same conditions. The crippling burden of, for instance, the word Man standing for both one gender and for human civilization itself, is made very clear. Yet, this being a story still inflected by that patriarchal inheritance, it recurrently arrives at situations where Ash and Roland are notably good-natured, while Christabel and Maud are comparatively hostile, unpredictable, untender. By "recurrently" I do not mean overwhelmingly. But it is noticeable enough, especially in the light of Ash's final appearance as a highly sympathetic patriarch with a broad-brimmed hat, to arouse reflection. Somehow he, the impulsive embracer on the common, the impulsive wrecker of séances, - and the adulterer too - does not seem to risk himself to anything like the extent Christabel does. And in fact she spares him, as in a different way Ellen does too. They, more than Randolph, take responsibility for their lives. It is somehow connected with this, I think, that much more of the novel is seen through Roland's eyes than Maud's. At the end, this may even seem odd - Maud after all is the one who has to adjust to her inheritance, but we don't know her thoughts. And in the one chapter where Randolph and Christabel appear as characters in a novel, the presentation is chiefly through Randolph's eyes. Thus the book to a certain extent perpetuates the conditions that her women struggle against - of finding themselves objects of the gaze and the embodiment of a mysterious Other. Perhaps this was a pre-condition of the book being easily a "Romance"; I definitely think it goes some way to explaining why Possession was so much more widely popular and celebrated than her earlier books.      

 

The Browning connection goes further still. To a certain extent the relationship between Ash and LaMotte glances at Browning's courtship of Elizabeth Barrett, that keen disciple of spiritualism. More than glances, really; the Brownings' letters are simply and absolutely the model for Byatt's letters between two clever poets who increasingly love each other, though perhaps the letters in Possession are a little less elliptical and have a whole lot more narrative. Anyway, it's Wimpole Street that is being reimagined to more sharply focus on Byatt's concerns. And this hidden background continues to resonate, in the vague sense that Ash (like Browning) is allowed to act the part of a saviour, bringing a kind of dangerous tonic in his own person. Powerfully as Possession exposes the crucial early roots of feminism and the desperate need for it, it also allows itself to be comedy, to celebrate the completion of heteronormal love, to smile benignly on everyone and to reflect, temperately enough, on "how far we've all come since then".     

 

*

 

Roland at one stage toys with the idea of writing poetry. Byatt's conception of poetry in the 1980s is a mainstream one, and this is one of the most lucid descriptions of it that I've seen. It is a statement by a novelist, but mainstream poetry is intimately linked to mainstream novels.  

 

It begins with Roland thinking more about readings - he has just read Ash's "The Garden of Proserpina" for the dozenth time - and in particular what he (or Byatt) considers to be good readings, not dutiful mappings and dissections, nor personal nor impersonal readings as such, but

 

Now and then there are readings which make the hairs on the neck, the non-existent pelt, stand on end and tremble, when every word burns and shines hard and clear and infinite and exact, like stones of fire, like points of stars in the dark - readings when the knowledge that we shall know the writing differently or better or satisfactorily, runs ahead of any capacity to say what we know, or how. In these readings, a sense that the text has appeared to be wholly new, never before seen, is followed, almost immediately, by the sense that is was always there, that we, the readers, knew it was always there, and have always known it was as it was, though we have now for the first time recognized, become fully cognisant, our knowledge.

 

Thus sensitized (no doubt the fundamental cause is really the unlooked-for welcome news of three job offers), Roland's wordlists begin to come to life, crystallizing around the evening's accidental features - not the quantifiably important ones - aas if they were themselves revelatory:

 

Tonight, he began to think of words, words came from some well in him, lists of words that arranged themselves into poems, "The Death Mask", "The Fairfax Wall", "A Number of Cats". He could hear, or feel, or even almost see, the patterns made by a voice he didn't yet know, but which was his own. The poems were not careful observations, nor yet incantations, nor yet reflections on life and death, though they had elements of all these. He added another, "Cat's Cradle", as he saw he had things to say which he could say about the way shapes came and made themselves. Tomorrow he would buy a new notebook and write them down. Tonight he would write down enough, the mnemonics.

 

He had time to feel the strangeness of before and after; an hour ago there had been no poems, and now they came like rain and were real. 

 

It's a pity that Byatt doesn't give us a line of Roland's poetry. Perhaps she could not easily do so, perhaps this poetry (unlike the Victorian poetry) could not be imitated without inappropriate laughter. At any rate it's clear that Roland's is a very different way of conceiving the writing of a poem from Ash's or LaMotte's.

 

*

"I pretended to be their lawyer, in a hurry with important information, and got told where they were. Which is, The Old Rowan Tree pub, on the North Downs, near, but not very near, Hodershall. Both of them. That's very significant."

 

This is Euan MacIntyre talking about Hildebrand Ash and Mortimer Cropper. When Byatt wants to get on with things and direct the whole story towards a comedy-adventure story, she is breezily slipshod; that first sentence covers two different phonecalls to two different people.

 

Euan's point about "near, but not very near" is easy to understand. The rascally pair, we gather, are staying somewhere that in itself would hardly point to Hodershall as their object at all - say, ten miles away. It needs the additional fact that they are together to sharpen Euan's suspicions to near-certainty. We infer that Ash and Cropper have deliberately avoided parking themselves right on top of their intended sphere of operations, so as not to arouse undue interest.

 

This is all very clear, but when we turn the page and come to the next chapter, it turns out that The Old Rowan Tree (now renamed the Rowan Tree Inn) is a mere mile from the isolated Hodershall churchyard, and is in fact the nearest dwelling to it. Seems like Byatt decided to relinquish the good idea of Ash and Cropper being circumspect in favour of the better idea about the great storm. If everyone was to get back from the churchyard to a place for comfortable inspection of papers, it would have to be, on that particular night, within walking distance.

 

This reminds me that the thrillingly unexpected sentence is this: "In that moment, the great storm hit Sussex." But why Sussex? No part of the North Downs is in Sussex (and, as a matter of fact, though the storm of 15/10/87 wreaked havoc in Sussex, it was even fiercer in Kent). Did Byatt originally envisage Hodershall as on the South Downs?  

 

But what is all this about downs? It is, surely, a little unusual to describe a pub (or anywhere) as being "on the North Downs". Not very specific, sitting in Mortlake, when the hills stretch south of London 100 miles from Farnham to Dover. Not very idiomatic either: people normally say e.g. near Leatherhead (Hodershall is apparently near Leatherhead). Unless one is romanticizing landscape, which evidently Byatt is, as she lurches into ever more popularized versions of romance (she even has the essential two villlains for her graveyard scene).

 

But there is an underlying motif here. Three ranges of chalk are encountered in the book: the Lincolnshire Wolds, the Yorkshire Wolds (Flamborough Head), and the North Downs. Thus the chalkland oddly joins other repeated motifs, such as the six bathrooms and the many fine meals conjoined by "and"s ("They sat over buckwheat pancakes in Pont-Aven and drank cider from cool earthenware pitchers and asked the dificult questions"). 

 

If I used the word "slipshod" (I did), this reminds me of another peculiarity. The older Sir George Bailey had a passion for exotic trees, and several are mentioned. They're a mixed bag, though: along with some unexceptionable trees Byatt mentions Japanese Juniper (a procumbent shrub that grows no taller than 50cm), Caucasian walnut (alternative name for the common walnut, which is not at all exotic, though sometimes confused with Caucasian wingnut), Persian Plum (non-existent, though could refer to that commonplace dusky ornament of small gardens, Pissard's Plum). Or take the hay-meadow where Randolph Henry Ash meets Maia - it contains (among many other plants) yellow snapdragons and larkspur, not things you might expect to find rioting in a Lincolnshire meadow - or is Byatt one step ahead of me, knew of the larkspur that was once a cornfield weed in Cambridgeshire and surmised that it might also have occurred in Lincolnshire? The point is - well, I don't really know what the point is, but these thrown-together lists make a striking contrast with the attention to detail elsewhere. (And LaMotte's memories of the North York Moors in the extract from Melusina seem very precise, too. To what extent are we to suppose that the mention of Paracelsus in the Proem is specifically owed to Ash's remarks in his letter?)

 

Apparently. But our belief in unified character perhaps slides over collages. Ellen Ash's journal style seems perfectly realized (did you click that when she writes her generous remarks on Melusina, she was well aware that Miss LaMotte had been her husband's mistress?) - "This morning Bertha was found to be slipped away... What should best be done?..." and that memorably tight-lipped sentence: "That matter is now I hope quite at an end and wholly cleared up". Or Christabel's epistolary style, with its slightly breathless intellectuality and its constant subquotations of Shakespeare et al ("I will tell you a Tale - no, I will not neither, it does not bear thinking on - and yet I will....").

 

*

 

How far is Possession a supernatural tale? No more than any other romance - say, Scott's...  But there are moments when the supernatural sneaks into view. Roland and Maud will never know that they repeat Randolph and Christabel in their trip to the Boggle Hole. Val at one point unwittingly and creepily quotes Blanche Glover about being a superfluous woman: at this point the story looks like it might not make that gear-shift towards comedy. And then there is the surprising turn of events that reveals Maud as the direct descendant of the two childless poets. That is all, but novels are supernatural in a different way also. As is pointedly shown when, in contrast to all this piecing-together of evidence and remains, the novel suddenly shows us scenes that it's impossible anyone could know of. You might wonder, reasonably, if the last one of those scenes, the one with Ash and Maia, is made up in a different way from the others - more explicitly made up, a fantastic embroidery.  

 

*

 

I thought no more about Christabel LaMotte's story "The Glass Coffin" until I coincidentally discovered that the homeopathic remedy Gelsemium is known as the "glass coffin". (I imagine Peter Redgrove wrote about that.) But anyway, I then googled the expression and realized that the common source was a fairy tale made famous by the Brothers Grimm. LaMotte's story follows the outline but has many lovely variations like the animals in the house in the wood, and the glass key. And it also makes a proto-feminist move, commenting on the original tale:

 

'Of course I will have you,' said the little tailor, 'for you are my promised marvel, released with my vanished glass key, and I love you dearly already. Though why you should have me, simply because I opened the glass case, is less clear to me altogether, and when, and if, you are restored to your rightful place, and your home and lands and people are again your own, I trust you will feel free to reconsider the matter, and remain, if you will, alone and unwed....' 

 

This discussion continues very amusingly, but the upshot is that the lady (or young woman - LaMotte disdains the use of "maiden") certainly does intend to marry the tailor, so that's why I call it proto-feminist - constrained by the possibilities of Victorian existence - as discussed previously.    

 

(2009)


 

Germaine Greer (b.1939)

 

Germaine Greer has become an important author for me, though I have so far read only three of her books; but all three have changed what I think. They were Slipshod Sybils, Sex and Destiny (1984) and most recently The Change (1991).

 

The Change is subtitled Women, Ageing and The Menopause. It’s a book about being forty-five-something, which happens to be what I am, though naturally the book is emphatic about the difference between what this means for a man and for a woman. When Germaine Greer wrote it she was in her early fifties.

 

Books about age are rare. Even older readers usually find themselves reading about men and women in what we now think of as the prime of life, starting around sixteen. This concept has managed to stretch upwards to the early forties. Coincidentally or not, it happens now to be the period when a woman can have children and has a sexual power. HRT (one of Greer’s chief objects of attack) seems to be sold on the basis of encouraging women to elongate the period when they too can be heroes and therefore willing participants in the fantasies of consumerism.

 

Young people do not wish to know anything about old people. Perhaps this is not wrong. Older people talk and think less about themselves, anyway. Perhaps literature, which has an intrinsically educational or at least informative component, is and ought to be about the young. Old people have nothing to learn, nothing tangible to strive for. Their decisions matter less to themselves. Love is the staple of the novel, love and death. But this means, nearly always, the death of a young person. Old people die a lot more often, but that’s not news.

 

In The Change a concerted attempt is made to identify with the interests of older people, such as gardening and going to church. This does not mean that they are “taken seriously” – the connotations of that phrase illustrate exactly why literature (which depends on taking things seriously) has a great problem grappling with age. Its deepest interests are in fact not deep, but infuriatingly unambitious. Older people, if they are self-absorbed at all, simply don’t accept the axioms on which a younger world revolves. That’s principally why advertisers can’t think of a way to sell to them. (In fact there are many TV programmes for an older audience but to everyone’s relief they are disguised. These include talent contests such as Stars in Their Eyes,gardening programmes, and programmes about buying property abroad as well as Breakfast with Frost, A Touch of Frost and in fact nearly everything now that the young have decamped to Sky.) It seems that older people do not wish to be reminded of how far they have left the rest of the world behind them. They appear merely to look on, mildly and uncomprehendingly, contributing to a grey and beige backcloth against which glamour can pose. At 46 I’ve begun to make attempts to write about this phase of life, but I’ve done it very badly. Age is much more fleeting than youth. It changes rapidly and insignificantly in a fluid way, leaving no concrete iconic images behind it.

 

OK, I know it’s about the menopause and therefore about a specific, rather young, agedness, but it seems to me that The Change is a little bit ageist in its own right. The author does not seem inspired at all about the thought of people in their eighties. She seems to see them as partially (or mostly) shut down. With the predisposition towards traditional patterns of society that was apparent in Sex and Destiny, she perhaps had a tendency to feel that anyone who survives to these greater ages is a bit of an anomaly. The idea that emerges from the book is that a seventy-five year old is much the same as a fifty-five year old, but minus – to a variable extent. More forgetful, less mobile, less able-bodied. I hope she will write a follow-up when she is in her mid-seventies; I hope so, actually, with some confidence. Greer’s appearance on Celebrity Big Brother suggests that, as usual, her own experience might not be too typical. She has tried on so many costumes, wearing mourning in Tuscany for example, and it may be that her phase of menopausal gardening had a gestural element. Why should she be more immune than others to the desire to prolong what made one feel excited and constructive?  

 

 

 

 

(2004)

 


 

Colm Tóibín: The Heather Blazing (1992)

 

 

This really isn’t a good choice of novel to give someone as a gift. But read it yourself. It’s about a successful, clever man who doesn’t connect with his family; and it’s desolating. The ending, mildly optimistic with its curious recollection of Dombey and Son (grandfather, daughter, grandson by the sea), does very little to modify the overall sense that one has been wounded, a trap has been sprung on the unwary.

 

Eamon Redmond doesn’t talk, doesn’t allow himself to think about his past – one thing that keeps us reading on is the feeling that we’re going to uncover a secret but there isn’t really a secret of a simplistic concrete sort, like some unusually traumatic experience. What there is, is the gradual formation of a pattern of life; a powerful success-making driven pattern, but also a pattern that is terribly trapped in its own terms, quite unable to see itself from outside. The book is not a voyage into memory but it is a voyage into Redmond’s mind and all the important things that it doesn’t remember, that it never allowed itself to register properly. I hope the anguish of this paragraph will come across – this is Eamon, back in the bedroom of their holiday home, after his wife’s death:

 

The night when he had washed her in the bath and lay on the bed beside hercame back to him now. He had avoided thinking about it. He remembered that it was a warm, close night like this with moths blundering against the windowpane. He remembered her voice, her voice telling him that he had never listened to her when she tried to tell him about her parents. He had gone over everything, every talk they had in all the years and he could recall nothing. He thought that she loved her parents, he remembered her talking about them in the months after they died. He could not remember her telling him that they fought in the house, nor that her father drank too much. As he sat there now in the night he asked her to forgive him if he had done anything wrong, he told her that he had tried to remember everything, but nothing came back to him, no time when he could have listened to her and comforted her about what had happened during her life at home. He simply could not remember.

 

Tóibín’s complex novel is made out extremely simple words, the ones you speak to yourself. Yet how complex the effect of e.g. that “could have listened”. Eamon’s poor memory, and it’s not any different now when he wants to be forgiven if he’s done anything wrong, is intimately connected to his skills as a judge, the clean slate he maintains for impeccable lines of reasoning. Which is a place of relief. People don’t become brilliant at something just for fun.

 

Eamon is a fine public speaker, but his communication in private, haltered by a judge’s reticence, is tortuous. He reserves information as a matter of habit.

 

He had learnt not to speak to the Guards; some of them had given evidence in his court over the years and, no doubt, would do so again, and he felt it was better if he did not know them.

 

He kept listening, more and more sure that he should not mention the story about his father and Cathal Brugha, that he should consign it to the past, to silence, as his father had done with the names of the men who did the killings in Enniscorthy.

 

And to his son:

 

‘You don’t recognize Cathy?’ Donal said to him.

 

‘Recognize her? I’ve just met her.’

 

‘He wouldn’t remember me,’ Cathy said.

 

Eamon noticed that both of them had become hostile. ‘I’ve a very good memory for faces,’ he said. ‘It’s not as good as Carmel’s, but I think I would remember you if I had met you before.’

 

‘Maybe it’s a guilty conscience,’ Donal said.....

 

‘Did you see what the Irish Times said about your judgment?’ Donal asked sharply.

 

‘It’s a funny day now when a newspaper starts making legal judgments.’ He was suddenly angry. ‘But I don’t think that we can discuss the case, if you don’t mind. I’d rather go back to discussing coastal erosion or the temperature of the Irish Sea.’

 

‘I’m sure you would,’ Donal said.

 

Eamon is constantly deciding not to tell people things, afraid he will be misunderstood. As we read we learn to interpret these moments as a series of untaken escapes from the pattern behaviour that makes him what he is. Where any of them might have led, who knows? But freedom does not seem a good description of what Eamon has. On the other hand it seems wrong to think of Eamon as exceptionally cold or inarticulate. The book seems quite clear that in his own way, he’s all right, more than all right in many ways. It’s one of the book’s terrible insights.  

 

Tóibín’s communication, however, is remarkable. The press write-ups on the back of the book reveal for once that this book has been read and has been effortlessly understood (“It is impossible,” says one of them, “to read Tóibín without being moved, touched and finally changed”). No poet would recognize the ease of that transaction with readers of the day. Though the book is too painful to be a bestseller, it plugs straight into the communal or national “we” as endlessly deployed by media commentators.

                                                                                                           

This transparent eloquence can make the book easy to under-rate. A second reading does not add much to what came across so completely on the first. And if there is no obscurity of effect, what is there for a critic to do?

 

What appeals to me throughout is the pacing of the narrative – I notice it without in any way feeling the story less. One great scene is the account of a death-haunted Christmas in which Eamon’s grandmother, so soon to be engulfed by tragedy, is dominant. Another is the punishingly long walk in which Eamon, after his wife’s death, tries to tire himself out and is slowly adjusting. Chapter 11 might be the best and most painful of all, the visits to Wexford for hopeful physiotherapy, and Carmel soiling herself. Nothing melodramatic happens to Eamon in the whole book – this is what we can all expect to go through, and we’ll be lucky if it’s no worse. That’s the other terrible insight.    

 

 

 

 

(2005)

 

 


Donald Ward: Lark Over Stone Walls (1993)

 

first published in Intercapillary Space.

 

The local poetry publisher in my town is Hippopotamus Press, a number of whose volumes have found their way onto the library shelves. What were the chances of finding something interesting from this selection? I thought of Hippopotamus Press as a press catering for a highly traditional audience, those neglected readers so far across the mainstream as to consider even soft surrealism an unacceptable practice.

 

Anyway, I did find something interesting. ("Modern in the best sense", the jacket claims uncomfortably, before turning with relief to "the great tradition of English rural verse"...)

 

Some of the derangements in Lark Over Stone Walls (1993) may be just poor proof-reading. For example "my Calvary bankers", in a poem about Alan Whicker's classic 1964 anti-foxhunting documentary, Death in the Morning; should it perhaps be "cavalry bankers"? And "whose walls are beaten to the mania gaze"; should that be "by the many's gaze"? ("Angoulême"). It seems I  don't altogether trust the text, which may be unfair since there's no more than the usual number of definite typos and probable mispunctuation. Yet having lost trust, the doubts find their way into the reading of nearly every poem. Had Ward, already well into his eighties, acquired a certain indifference to particles? In the last line of "Breath", should the peculiar "for" simply be accepted as the commonplace "from"? The syntax of "Late into the night" is unresolvable as it stands, but positing an absent "if" in one place would sort it out almost completely, if a bit dully. My mind swirls with alternatives. I read

 

The Devil himself, forsworn into the Christ

To witness thus, such suffering in time

 

and wonder if it really helps or not to suppose the Devil forsworn unto the Christ to witness this? I am swaying on sphagnum.

 

From Ward's own Guardian obituary (Feb, 2003): "His poetry, though belonging to no literary school, was direct and simple, speaking naturally about themes both universal and personal". This idea probably emanates from Ward himself, whose bio says: "He started to write seriously in middle age. This may explain the lack of obvious literary influences in his work". Perhaps it may, though I'm not sure what the implied argument is: that finding expression so late, one is bound to forms of language fixed over a lifetime and comparatively unreceptive to outside influence? But what provided the seed for such forms, if not someone else's poetry?

 

The fact seems to be that Ward's conceptions of poetry are in a highly recognizable tradition, so that often you know what kind of thing the poem says though it may not say it, but the expression is indeed distinctive. The deranged syntax is too everywhere to be ignored, and in due course I gladly surrender trying to second-guess what may lie behind the long sentences. Here is part of one:

 

the bright kindness finished,

and the bright half-jokes

 

till the murderous silence settles,

stampedes the millionth smile

(submerged – or wicked,

submerged, far worse than bliss)

 

till ceremony has marshalled all that's left,

though some may feign surprise they should be left

or simply are surprised in their suspense

 

(from "Astrid")

 

I simply am surprised in my suspense, unsettled by a settling that is also a stampede, astonished by the inverted Milton of "far worse than bliss"...

 

"Lark Over Stone Walls" begins:

 

Hills swarm on salmon and rock

and on this vague street...

 

The word "and" promises a second main clause, but in the remaining 32 lines we'll never get one. Instead the poem is structured as an endlessly unrolling sequence of subordinates. Pick it up half way through:

 

or a thin stream that runs by a tavern

and has never discovered its origin.

 

Though streams flash trembling silver

and through the town's hollows

the platinum streams

sneak beneath walls

to the dun valley

where low houses are all one

with no distractions but each other

the dark window's gob of light,

the factory drying on the line

waving to other waterfalls

 

"Though" is either in apposition to the first non-sentence, or else it begins the second with another unkept promise. There is no lark in the poem, but these syntactic break-ups keep us scanning beyond the poem's borders, as if for the thin stream's origin. Eventually the poem turns a corner and into head-on confrontation with the whole town being owned by "the firm". Just as we're readjusting our sights, it flips again, this time into tipsy surrender:

 

where sunlight doubled as it fell

and stone walls lay back in Eden.  

 

 

In "Estuary" the syntactical derangement is less keenly felt, but it's still there. This is the brilliant nature-evocation for which Ward has been admired; it's also an object-lesson in the slippery use of "whilst" and "while" and "where" to shift times and points of view. In the end the estuary, continual interaction of river and sea, cannot be pinned down to a view and therefore can't be captured by evocation either:

 

.....the thin-lipped waves

Which roll their foam

Squirming and vanishing to the anonymous sea.

 

...

 

Whilst its river is the gulls' escape yet wears

A diminishing rapture of the sea –

Or buries the sea

Beneath the tapered roar

Embalming mud, and all the pebbled shore

Where salivaed stones lie shining

Round and bare

 

While a film of water like the softest hair

Moans the last trickle of relief

 

"Moan", an important term for Ward, is an inarticulate sound which squeezes out an essence; as here, of emotional release. Elsewhere, he speaks of words as moans. Perhaps the spongiform texts respond to that conception of language.

 

[Donald Ward was born in 1909 in Surrey. He left school at 14 and worked for the Post Office for a round half century. Nearing retirement he started to write poetry: the first of his collections appeared in 1971; he continued writing until near his death in 2003 and eventually there were around a dozen books and pamphlets, mostly published by small mainstream presses like Hippopotamus and the Mandeville Press run by John Mole and Peter Scupham. There were brief glimpses of attention in the national press, Radio 3, etc. A Collected Poems was published by the University of Salzburg in 1995. "Ted" Ward was a long term resident of Orpington, Kent and a loyal supporter of the local football team, Cray Wanderers.]

 

 

(2007)

 

 


Martyn Crucefix (b. 1956)

 

Beneath Tremendous Rain (1990)

On Whistler Mountain (1994)

 

 

The first thing I want to say about Martyn Crucefix is that he comes from Trowbridge, which makes him (so far as I’m concerned) the most famous modern Trowbridgian, with the sole exception of Stephen Lee, that comfortably upholstered snooker player with the cue-action. (Less recently, Isaac Pitman, inventor of Pitman shorthand system...) On my own side of the county boundary, we can lay claim to the Shoe-bomber and Jenson Button and Jemma-Anne Gunning, the topless Maenad rejected from Faliraki.

 

 

Boots

 

Rounded brown toe-caps

are the wet muzzles. . . of what?

They browse through puddles, mud

and grass. They’re at home with thistles,

nettle, thorn – the voice I imagine

is the leathery mooing of contented cattle.

You say, what do they talk about?

“Look around – there is plenty to love!”

And sure enough, every step

has left its token in the caterpillar track

of their soles: grit and dust,

a piece of grass, pale stones like pips

caught in teeth

at the end of a slap-up meal.

 

- - -

 

                 (...) the essence

of ‘bootness’ which is what I like.

Oh, with your padded leather backs,

grip, grip always my ankles high up.

Ride rough-shod under my human soles.

 

                                                            (“Shoe Pieces. 2. Boots”, OWM)

 

 

We want a more direct experience of nature, and take our boots out of the wardrobe. The boots enable us to get out onto Striding Edge; but in a way they enable us by insulating us. The knobbly rocks are soothed. We stand in a puddle and don’t get wet – it’s the boots that browse through the puddle. So we personify the boots, partly in envy of their total involvement with stuff, partly in a spirit of fantasy that lets us share the involvement but without the discomforts.

 

The miles go by, and this raw desire for nature subsides; the earth loses its colour, the ground loses its particularity and becomes vast. Now we appreciate the function of good boots; the grip, the ride, the walking they do for us. We no longer wish to cram our souls with stuff, but to make camp. I think, the next time I clatter down a stream-bed at dusk, I will find myself saying: Ride rough-shod under my human soles.

 

I have a distaste for these appropriations of cliché and groaning puns. (So it’s unfortunate that both mainstream and innovative poets are addicted to them.) But I’ll make an exception for this line. The “under” is nurturing, like a hull or a womb. “Ride”, once a stable-word, now suggests a car chewing up distance while the stereo thumps smoothly.

 

 

Accident

 

She leaves him, Johnson-powdered,

a dusty nude, squatting on her bed,

a little Buddha, pulling his toes.

 

The bathroom’s a fug where she kept

the gas-heater blasting because he

played for ages in inches of water.

 

Not vain (just the mirror’s well-placed),

she takes a look at herself in passing,

registers something remote and greyed

 

crossing beneath the condensation.

She pulls out the plug as a ripping

scream panics her back, expecting

 

bright blood, a disfiguring dive

to the floor, twisted limbs at least.

He still sits plumb on the bed,

 

reading his palms and wailing a high

continuous wound in the air

at his chubby fingers, their wrinkling.

 

                                                (“Accident”,  OWM)

 

 

 

She sees him as a little man; her own perception is adult, complicated by words and associations. She makes a judgment: fug. She gets into a tangle with noticing she’s not vain and maybe that’s vain and if I were vain would I feel what I really do feel, remote and greyed? At the sound of the scream she expects what she really doesn’t expect, exaggerating the images so that they seem less likely. In short, she’s altogether a normal person. The child sees the metamorphosis of his hands, and is horrorstruck by the enormous injury that he hasn’t even felt. He will learn to overcome his direct experience of nature, sensibly, but lose it in the process.    

 

Crucefix has written sound advice about giving readings: train your voice, slow down, mix the intense with the relaxed, make ‘em lauqh make ‘em cry.

Some of this aesthetic has got into the composition-stage, too. This is a poet who is conscious of an audience, who is aware of how his poem will play.

 

I feel a resistance. Perhaps it is an absurd competitiveness, a reluctance to admire someone whose career feels too ironically close to mine. I question the contemporary ordinariness of his persona, the conversational ease with which he says

 

 

            I’d known him at school

 

 

            This seems so Gallic

 

 

            These days it’s turned by a tug on a rope

 

 

            They’d always out in the end

 

 

            All that’s irrefutable

            is the swift Mercedes coach

 

 

                        What is remaining

            of your atmosphere is lost as you

            adjust to ours

 

 

            By day, she sold the real thing

            from buckets on the quay

 

 

            Listen. I will explain –

 

 

            When it’s finished, he’ll gladly talk,

            how he treasures his privilege.

 

 

            as if her weeding of error has finally

            turned trumps

 

 

            I’d never have believed the way we’d come

            apart, all but lost what I’d trusted in:

            our common blood, brother’s understanding.

 

 

In the slangy ellisions, “I’d” and “They’d”, there’s a skating over the surface that makes these poems feel like addresses to the audience, not urgent meditations that tax the poet himself. And they rarely surprise. When Crucefix “does” El Caudillo, Shelley’s drowning, Wainwright (the fellwalker), a Redgrovian fantasy (“Wasps”), a demotic bit of Chaucer, elegies for the dead, semi-dramatic monologues, interlaced narratives such as “Rosetta” and “On Whistler Mountain”... the poem’s achievement is always a bit close to the expectation. Poems about paintings, about formative sexual experience, about family history, foreign trips. Yes, I reflect ungratefully, these are the kind of poems one does write.

 

Not that predictability precludes satisfaction. “Teacher” (in OWM) is an intensely lustful poem (the teacher for a female pupil) – the more clearly he sees her, the more his vision is distorted with desire, and the poem ends with (what he uprightly suppresses, so the poem maintains a certain jaunty comedy)

 

 

            that hot, unpatrolled dormitory of himself

            where she did nothing but sleep and please him.

 

 

Though at the outset the poem unnervingly recalls Don’t stand so close to me, not to mention Yes sir, I can boogie, the final effect is troublingly sad, and sexy, and funny. I should also do justice to “Wasps” (in OWM). There is no fear in Redgrove’s poems; but Crucefix makes you flinch:

 

 

            Jointed twiggy legs hold me down

            beneath a swivelling, oiled head

            as uncommunicative as stone.

            Its long abdomen is like a cob of maize

            I find velvety to the touch.    

 

 

I do find the poems sustaining. Re-reading “El Caudillo” (in BTR), for example, one locks on to the pines, the “thickening layers of needles”, and a curious contrast between two kinds of cleanness. The be-suited entourage return down the slope, “kicking up flares of pine needles before them”, and get into the black cars, with their antiseptic “click and cough of the doors”. One briefly imagines pine-needles on the floor of the car. The image comes alive with expression – of the abstraction in which a business decision is made, still influenced by the surroundings that are scarcely even observed, though they were chosen by someone. The kicking expresses discomfort as well as excitement, impatience; it is an adjustment to the decision now made, an adjustment that is necessary whatever one’s feelings might have been beforehand.  

 

 

But I forget what I’m here for.

 

(“Midsummer at High Laver”, BTR)

 

In this poem the poet makes a “self-conscious” visit to John Locke’s place of burial, but the poem takes an unexpected course, distracted by thoughts about ageing parents and by an irrigator. That’s often when the poems begin to strike marvellous insights – it’s those scatterings, rather than the poems as finished forms, that sustain me. 

 

 

            I watch the flailing mare’s-tail, the jet-stream

            spray of the irrigator beside the church.

            Its white angle above the potato fields

            seems to crumple to a vaporous nothing, yet

            a judder slams sudden clouds of fizzing spray.

 

 

(mare’s-tail, an aquatic plant with plumy foliage, swaying in slow streams – water-milfoil would have been an even better image, but mare’s-tail has a more suggestive name, precluding the need for botany). This spasmodic irrigator is an answer, of sorts, to talk of death and even to John Locke. It is both beautiful and insane, a nurturer and a destroyer too. (The water breaks up the soil, and of course its mannerisms are disconcertingly like a machine-gun too.) It marks time passing and it doesn’t care. This irrigator is a secular sermon. It’s because of the soothing contemplation of machines that we don’t now need an after-life, perhaps. Electric wheelchairs and TV schedules reassure the old. Soothing, and numbing too. We get stalled, in a marvellous realization of the irrigator that carries on “doing its thing” after the poet has walked back to his car and the poem has ended.

 

In this poem, technology plays a more important role than appears at first. The abstracted motorist comes to a place of rubber thongs supporting tree saplings and of florist’s creations around a fresh grave. It is centuries away from Gray’s Elegy, as it should be.

 

In the long poem “On Whistler Mountain technology is everything. This is a brilliantly complex narrative. The poet hears the news of his brother’s suicide; they went skiing in Whistler; a brutal Amerindian tale of Blackbird; they were in Vancouver at New Year; flying home; his brother’s involvement in Gulf War technology; as boys, they disinter a stone angel in an old mason’s yard. Without warning the lines switch between narratives. Then the poet starts to dream of an encounter with his dead brother, and the narratives begin to inter-mix. Eventually we contemplate this:

 

 

                                                We stood beside

            its pocky tarmac. Sunlight. A grid-lock

            of luxury saloons, jeeps, trucks, stalled

            fire engines, a bulldozer. Any set

            of wheels seemed to have been rashly commandeered to

 

            drive into the red heart of a firestorm,

            fierce enough to scald the windshield glass to gobs

            of silicone. That there were survivals

            at all was a miracle: a new case

            of White Flake laundry soap, slightly burned.

            A black bird face-down, is Donald Duck turned up.

 

            A glossy calendar – some daffodils,

            thatch, white café tables, a tall skyline...

 

 

The poem lurches off into other narratives for a line or two, and returns:

 

 

            Closer. Each of the cabs sheltered black loads,

            shapeless at first, the colour of weathered

            coal, the texture of a sooty coral.

            Memory releasing, I recognized

            what had been teeth – these grinning because

            the lower jaw and face-bottom had been torn off.

 

            In the flat bed of a stalled Nissan truck,

            this coal-shape went head-down, hopeful ostrich,

            its buttocks arrested in mid-air, legs

            blasted at mid-thigh, ending abruptly

            in a flutter of charcoal like the film

            of carbon it must have watched in a childhood fire.

 

            In the Ford ahead, a creature’s body

            has been blown open, double-doors onto

            organs neatly packed, cooked to ebony.

            In a Renault van, a squat roughened log.

            A shell-wound like a knot-hole in its chest.

           

 

This reads like a too-close-up vision of the Gulf War on the ground. But (as in Golding’s Pincher Martin), the details are imagined out of scraps from elsewhere. As the White Flake soap and Donald Duck and the vehicles suggest, this is a North American gridlock. The jawless grin suggests Blackbird’s torn-off beak, and perhaps the way that Chris killed himself. The ostrich posture recalls the poet’s fears of wipe-out on the ski-slope; the image of watching a fire recalls Louise on the night they heard the news; the log is the totem-pole they saw in Vancouver, and the shell-wound is a knot-hole in a carved figure. The intensity in the writing, controlled by the quiet syntax, really comes out of the poet’s private grief. It is avowedly a non-combatant’s poem, concerned with a war that, as many felt and claimed, seemed peculiarly like a non-combatatant’s war – a viewer’s war. Subsequent events have wrought further changes in the poem’s meaning. 

 

“On Whistler Mountainwould like to implicate the innocent in war’s atrocities, but we easily see that as a spasm of grief. If everyone is guilty, the guilty are not named. The poem remains troubling, innocence leaching away from orange ski-clips, New Year kisses in Vancouver, the Seattle Seahawks, satellite phones, museums...

 

 

 

(2003)

 


 

J.H. Prynne: Her Weasels Wild Returning (1994)

 

(first appeared in Intercapillary Space)

 

The text of Her Weasels Wild Returning is fairly widely available (first published in Equipage 1994, reprinted in Iain Sinclair’s Conductors of Chaos anthology in 1996). This will be of fairly limited interest if you don’t have that text to hand, but I could not find another way of proceeding without quoting almost the entire poem in gobbets, which would have been truly unendurable.

 

The poem consists of seven sections, each consisting of two 12-line stanzas.

(Numerologists have not failed to note a correspondence to the hours and days of the week, but this seems to me to go nowhere very interesting.) I will refer to the sections merely by number; Prynne’s own subtitles, though sometimes highlighting valuable themes (e.g. “detour” in Section 4), are archly playful and too ungainly to be convenient. 

 

Her Weasels Wild Returning is, despite its notorious rebarbativeness, an extremely satisfying poem to read. Part of that satisfaction arises from comprehending (what is easily seen) that the details of the text are through-composed with an acute attention to details; it’s a poem that, we are soon convinced, is worth a long measure of our own attention. This is rather old-fashioned. As the plain and formal appearance on the page suggests, this is a poem for reading, not for looking at.

 

What it yields at once, and definably, makes it sound exciting without taking us much further: a thrilling sense of movement and speed, variety within wider unity (each of the poem’s 24-line sections has its distinct character), breathtaking scope, an unflagging sense of drama that eventually leads to a tasteful resolution-that-is-not-a-resolution: grand similes, simultaneous hints of having arrived somewhere and of cyclical return. 

 

It’s more usual of course to talk about the poem’s dissatisfactions. Criticism at this relatively early stage in the poem’s reception is inevitably bound to confront the matter of referentiality; the success or failure of the critique being largely a matter of how well this topic is managed. My own feeling is that the poem is best described as poly-referential rather than non-referential. (Literal non-referentiality is probably an impossibility in any poem if it contains even a scrap of actual language, or even the spectral shape of language. Prynne’s work, in any case, is a very long way from that frontier – compared with what is quite commonplace in visual poetry, for example.) What I mean by poly-referential needs further definition.

 

When I first thought that I wanted to write about Her Weasels Wild Returning, I scrutinized the text anxiously – as I suppose others have done – in case it proved to conceal some master narrative which, if I failed to notice it, would seriously invalidate anything else I might have to say. On the whole I do not think there is a master-narrative. One can (and should) read narratives out of the text – I have read many – but I think the way it works is that when you start to pick out a story you do so by tacitly switching off the valencies of half the words. To take an obvious example, one can hardly fail to notice the many references or half-references to sailing and related nautical concepts in (especially) the first section:

 

                                               Will either sermon

sift over, down with his line, ripped away on a plain

deception: nothing to save on this boiling turn.

                                        .... her peak

sail crowds white under....  

                                     .... for all of it

miss a rock indifferently.       

 

But to the same extent that we choose to foreground this narrative in our reading, we temporarily blank out the “sermon” and the “deception” (not to mention the “assay debenture” and the “pragma cape”) because they don’t happen to fit. Thus in the sailing narrative, as in all the others we might choose to read off, there are dislocations and spots on the film caused by the words we are tacitly gliding over; as you might say, like the lucky dinghy that “miss[es] a rock indifferently”.

 

There are several reasons why Prynne has managed to strew so many narratives across the same field of words. Because the grammar is everywhere incomplete or dislocated, each word is patient of an exceptional range of connotation; there is not much “insulating power of the context” to act as a limiter. Moreover many words can be taken as a variety of different parts of speech – e.g. verbs or nouns. For example

 

                                         Aviators may

join this fork out cheaply and livid on a par

with grades of bliss settled

 

where “this” momentarily proposes that “fork” is a noun, but the obtrusive presence of “fork out” immediately counter-proposes “fork” as a verb; “livid”, according to the dictionary, can only be an adjective, but its resemblance to the expected verb “live” is too close to be ignored, especially in such close proximity to the near-synonym “settled”, which is itself uncertainly adjectival; it might be a verb. “Fork out”, incidentally, is immediately disturbed by the contradiction of “cheaply”; a very characteristic technique of pruning the primary sense (the one that demands the least reader effort or engagement) in order to release an efflorescence of flightier connotation. Compare the inherent contradictions of “steadily shocked” and “sweet vernal abscission” in passages that I discuss below.    

 

Even a particle (like any other word, if imagined with implicit inverted commas round it) may be dwelt on as a noun. The first word of the poem is “At” and the same word recurs in its last line. Let’s pick up a few of those “at”s.

 

At leisure for losing outward  (Section 1, first line of poem)

 

at a stretch giving fresh two. (Section 2)

 

at fresh extent  (Section 5)

 

and the air locks in, at a dab rack roaming the field. (Section 7, last line of poem)

 

In each of these instances the locative “at” is being put in motion and is stretched outward, which is a familiar theme in accounts of Prynneian space. “At” is also one of the themes of the poem (what does it mean to be at a particular location?), but once again I suggest not a master-theme. I think it exemplifies the way that Prynne’s poems continue to re-meditate the concerns of his past writings. For these as for all the other potential narratives there turns out to be – I was going to say “plenty of room”, but given the minutely active and compressed nature of the text, it’s probably better to say “only just enough room”.  

 

What I am not saying here is that Her Weasels Wild Returning  is polysemous like the ideal of medieval allegory, i.e. with multiple but ultimately non-contradicting “levels” of significance. What I am saying is that the same text permits partial narratives to be read off; not all the facets can glitter at once. And in fact there is contradiction and even positive isolation between these partial narratives. If “leisure” (the second word of the poem) is potentially linked with sailing boats and flying planes, these activities can also be linked with war missions and casualties – which can also be discovered here. “Rack” (in the final line, quoted above) is after all a torture-instrument, a different and less leisured kind of stretching.

 

It’s time to expand on something I said earlier, that each of the sections has its own “character”. A fairly objective way of demonstrating that is to annotate terms or clusters of terms that are emphasized by repetition within one section. The following list was noted casually and is not comprehensive. 

 

Section 1: save / saving / save; both / either / both / both

 

Section 2: what did she hear / what for her was it exactly / what then did she hear / what brittle for her was it exactly

 

Section 3: to fall / to fall; still... her reflex nearer / Her reflex nearer still  

 

Section 4: entry / entry; old dish / old meat on a dish

 

Section 5: the slope / this slope; trim / trim

 

Section 6: tied / tied; bled / blood-young

 

Section 7: like / like; blood / blood

 

More significantly there are wider themes that characterize their sections. A fairly simple example, in Section 4, is the sudden appearance of grassy vegetation: “oat”, “Sedge”, “plant”, “sweet vernal”. The theme is demonstrably there, but the words are far from giving a pastoral softness to this section. “Oat refringence” is indeed beautiful, speaking about the silveriness of grassheads (a means of refracting the sun’s heat from the tender parts of the plants). But “sweet vernal” is abruptly followed by “abscission”, which botanically is the organized shedding of parts, typically associated not with spring but with autumnal break-up (e.g. leaf-fall). Its other, surgical, meaning (amputation) connects with less comfortable features of this section, e.g. “the slashed shelf life here to utter startled bleeding”, or “steadily shocked by the glass screen”. In the end even the momentarily beautiful oats are seen in terms of harsh economic realpolitik as crop and asset, a “premium ground” in a passage that keeps referring to the ring-fenced negotiation of ambiguous and constrained freedoms (“granted”, “Dispensing”, “Ask for less”, “a top limit assigned”, “bars”, “allowed”).   

 

The most significant organizing themes of all are often hard to describe in words. I will quote the second half of Section 6:

 

for as did we laugh now, in order alla breve got

together plied.

 

Well actually I’ll pause here for a second. Alla breve is a composer’s mark above a passage of the score that is to be played twice as fast as written (e.g. a crotchet in the score is to be performed as a quaver). This precipitates a virtuoso sequence of references to time-schemes that are yoked together but are in fact unsynchronized; I count ten in this passage: 

 

for as did we laugh now, in order alla breve (1) got

together plied (2). Speak what, don’t look, the fresh gate (3*)

repeals instantly the sound within (4). Exit the blood-

young watchers: yourself alone. Even so willing to lag

half back (5) from revised shots, what try as they might

is hard to come by in slow recall (6). The voices bell

on the spur, heard clear in front, go as we must (7).

In avid incident no more but the brim fills right up

to make a dash outward (8); to run this at a novel snip (9**)

for all found. Sight unseen you lead, tied to the band (10)

in short repeats as for ever and ever bright-eyed,

abraded by tick link succession in demand restored.

 

* via a pun, “fresh gait”.

** ”snip” taken here to suggest “clip”, a rapid pace.

 

Here as elsewhere, various narratives can be seen to glance off the words, for instance about experience vs memory, the so-called immortal past, the rhythms of immediacy, the over-laying of one person’s time-experience by another’s, a critique of realist accounts of experience in time, an insubordinate reluctance to be swept along by the march of events, apparent spontaneity vs historical determinism. No single narrative gives (or, to be fair, is felt to give) an adequate account of the poem’s fullness; each is to some degree a coercive ordering of multiplicity.

 

(For a somewhat similar sequence of ideas, consider the theme of losses – more specifically, the official and euphemistic treatment of losses – in Section 2, beginning perhaps with the phrase “the rally diminished” and continuing through “cut assets”, “alleviation”, etc.)

 

I suppose I have come close to proposing that the reader’s disposition to form narrative is a force harnessed by the poet that leads in general to an insight about the inadequacy of such narratives. (But without the error, what insight?) The plethora of feminine pronouns, impossible to ignore, seems to me a particularly treacherous sounding-board; in the absence of satisfactory context, they amplify with embarrassing loudness whatever stereotypical images of the feminine one happens to bring to them. This idea of a text full of salutary traps for the reader inevitably recalls seventeenth-century religious literature in the classic accounts of Stanley Fish. I don’t think this formulation is quite right for Prynne, because there’s nothing in the modern reader’s situation that corresponds to universally-credited standards of sin and godliness. (The reader of Prynne is self-authoritative and can only get trapped by judging that a trap has closed.)

 

What’s certain is that reading Her Weasels Wild Returning is a strenuous way to pass the time, potentially both “leisure” and “rack”, but anyway leading, if you let it, towards a critical meditation of these terms. Or, it may be, of any other terms in which you choose to define the engagement. These 168 lines await many fresh voyages of discovery, many punitive invasions...

 

(2006)  

 


 

Cathal Ó Searcaigh

 

(First published in Intercapillary Space. This was a review of By the Hearth in Mín a’ Leá, trans. Frank Sewell, Denise Blake and Seamus Heaney, Arc Publications, 2006.)

 

 

Cathal Ó Searcaigh writes popular poetry. He has no room for indirectness, is naturally extrovert, colourful, candid and lyrical. You, the reader, are invited – in fact assumed – to go along with what the poem revels in or laments. Since sometimes the popular reader may baulk at the content this has also made him unpopular in ways that a less direct poet can never be; for example, when he writes clear-eyed paeans to gay lovers or describes a father-daughter rape in the all-too-traditional rural setting of “Gort na gCnámh” / “The Field of Bones”. Some of his other work, for example his plays, has also caused ripples of offence among traditionally-minded audiences. 

 

To get something back from these poems a gesture of assent is really required in advance, like when you show up at a party. I don’t find this gesture of assent comes very naturally to me; I have grown too accustomed to being piqued and seduced by unexpected turns in what I read and these poems have a different way of going about things: they generally turn out to be more or less what you thought they’d be at the outset. So rather too often I’ve instead been diverted into puzzling out the Irish text, a completely absorbing activity that has significantly slowed down production of this review!   

 

What is this assent to? I think what it is is to the poem’s enactment. What I mean is that the poem is not so much a discourse as an enactment of its subject. If you don’t choose to join in the enactment then it never happens.

 

Let’s approach this from a different angle. I’m too ignorant to know if this is a feature of Irish poetry generally or just the way Ó Searcaigh writes poetry, but he tends to dwell a long time on the same spiritual moment, circling around it by employing a wide variety of epithets and repetitions slightly re-cast in order to hold the poem in one place. The time taken by the lines, in other words, is not (what we are accustomed to) proportional to the amount of information that needs to be said, but proportional to the greatness, intensity or enormity of the subject: if it is an intense feeling, then in order to enact it a certain number of lines are required. (This reminds me a little of Anglo-Saxon poetry.)

 

This is an example.

 

is tchinn an ghrian ag teasú chuige go ciúin

ag tuirlingt ina thuilidh solais ag a chosa;

an ghrian uilechumhachtach,

a leannán rúin as na spéartha;

tchínn í á mhuirniú is á bháthadh

á mhaisiú is á mhúchadh

á leá den tsaol

á chumascadh lena solasbheatha féin,

agus tchínn an seanduine ag imeacht

lena chuid roicneacha is le leatrom na haoise;

tchínn é ag imeacht as raon mo radhairc

cosúil le carraig á creimeadh i dtuilidh sléibhe;

á mionú is á meilt;

á géilleadh féin do thabhairt an tsrutha;

agus sa chiúnas adaí

tchínn an seanduine ag gabháil ar ceal,

ag géilleadh a nádúir is a dhílseachtaí

Dhianghrá.

 

I’d see the sun quietly warming

to him, landing in majesty

at his feet in a tide, his secret

lover from the sky. I’d see her

caress, immerse, lick and quench,

dissolving him into her own lifelight.

I’d see the old man, with his wrinkles

and slights, fade slowly from view

like a rock gnawed by the sea,

crumbled and crushed, surrendering

to the current; and in that quiet,

I’d see the old man eloping,

giving his essence and elements

to his true love.

 

(from “Taispeánadh” / “Revelation”, trans. Frank Sewell)

 

This is just an extract: the whole poem stands on the same spot: old man, sun, light, metamorphosis. It stays there long enough for you to forget that, for example, the sun can’t always be shining and the old man doubtless listens to the radio in the evening; instead, you start to dissolve into the sunlight yourself. Sewell reduces 18 lines to 14, but he does give an idea of how the poem proceeds: that emphasis on the stealthy sounds of heat, that enactment.

 

But it’s obvious that Ó Searcaigh gave the translators some trouble. If you try and stick religiously with his pacing, it can easily slip into bathos. This is Seamus Heaney translating the end of “Na Píopaí Créafóige” / “The Clay Pipes”:

 

....  like the forest people of Columbia

I read about in the library,

a tribe who smoke clay pipes, coloured pipes

that used to have to be made from this one thing:

basketfuls of clay

scooped out in fatal danger

in enemy country, in a scaresome place

full of traps and guards and poisoned arrows.

According to this article, they believe

that the only fully perfect pipes

are ones made out of the clay

collected under such extreme conditions.

 

These 12 lines represent the same number in the original, but Oh My God! how they flounder as they struggle to pad out what is all too evidently only about three lines worth of solid information. You can see why Ó Searcaigh is trying to keep us enacting this raid, though; he wants to make us spend long enough with the tribe and its customs to register many aspects of his none-too-obvious analogy with the rest of the poem (which is about an American acquaintance who was obsessed with fathoming death).

 

Yet the approach commonly taken by Frank Sewell and Denise Blake, of stripping out repetition and circumlocution to deliver a more concise sequence of punches, can go wrong too; it can end up surrendering the core of the poem.

 

I am still unsure whether “Gort na gCnámh” /  The Field of Bones”  is a good poem or not. The horrors of the story are well-rendered when we are dealing with action, the father’s rape of his thirteen-year-old daughter or the dreadful loneliness, at night in the field, of clandestine birth and infanticide:

 

My midwife was an old dog bitch,

Who lapped up my blood, chewed on afterbirth.

 

This is one of those moments that, because we at first dismiss it as a Gothic fantasy, returns with double force when the penny drops: that this is only how it was.

 

These awful memories are constrained within a formal frame, seven sections each of thirteen long lines. That frame reflects with a certain irony the unvarying repetition of the way of life in which the narrator is trapped, the impossibility of getting out, the isolated rural setting, the imaginative poverty that looks picturesque to a traveller. If the father is a brute the daughter is herself brutalized; that was part of what being a victim would mean. And like her the poem itself cannot move away. There was never a time when life was not unspeakable and it’s a procession that never gets any less black.

 

But Blake makes some unfortunate decisions about how to represent the poem, especially right at the start:

 

Girl, the light is fading, he barks

     out of nowhere,

as if I had the slightest control

     over the night.

Oh, Christ, if that churlish fool

     only understood

half of what he said. My father, the thran

    brutal bastard.

 

It’s true that in this opening scene the daughter (now 42) is physically a match for her father, but surely everything we learn as the poem proceeds tells us she is utterly incapable of being so energetically sassy, so comfortably superior, as the voice here suggests (“as if I had the slightest control”). Partly I blame this on Blake’s reduction of circuitous meandering to clipped concision. And too much is left out – a whole sentence about the light fading in the narrator’s mind, for instance. What we are left with makes a disastrously wrong entry to the poem: if the father really accuses his daughter of nightfall then he’s comically senile, and if he doesn’t then she’s being comically irritable. Comedy is not, I am sure, one of the things we’re meant to be hearing here. It’s disastrous because it has longer-term effects. A narratorial “I” is always vulnerable to being read as a dramatic monologue with all that it implies of an understood audience and of exposure of the narrator’s character: and Blake allows that misconception to be enforced since her brevities tend to interjections. Yet it’s clear from the poem as a whole that this discourse is not even supposed to be realized as an interior monologue; instead, it needs to be grasped as an emblematic convention where the mute are made to speak their stories, like in a martyrology. 

 

Of course I can’t fully understand the translators’ difficulties. Everyone seems to think they need to do a bit extra: Heaney gives us Heaneyisms (“plash and glitter”,  the pitch and brawl of the sea”), Sewell introduces pop puns and allusions (“pow and glory”, “Hooked, lined and sinkered”, “long and winding road”); I think these compensate for an energetic language of epithets and syntactic fluidity that their English poetry can’t replicate.

 

Ó Searcaigh’s writing is good at creating a static image which may be a state of mind or a style of life or may be a fragile position that the poem manages to occupy without moving away from it. One of the best poems is “Do Isaac Rosenberg” / “For Isaac Rosenberg”. The poem switches guilelessly between evoking the horrors of Rosenberg’s war and celebrating Ó Searcaigh’s happy love:

 

I never saw fresh-faced soldiers thrown like straw sheaths

in the fertile fields of warfare; smelt a deathly stench

rising as a plague from the rotting flower of youth,

 

never wore the carnage-soaked muck of a battleground,

lost my mind in the sound of explosions, nor felt the hot sting

of a bullet, like a wasp sucking out the wild honey of my life.

 

No, don’t be offended, Isaac Rosenberg, by my using your name,

I who am shielded by my poems in this sanctuary of love

while the red wound of war still festers in the heart of Europe.

 

For my soul was joyous from the closeness of that wonderful body.

My lover at my side; each limb, each muscle, each promontory,

each portion of him from his crown to the ground – all so enticing.

 

This was written during the Balkan war. Like another good poem here, “Duine Corr” / “Odd Man Out”, this probes unerringly into that unease that we now feel at witnessing conflict in other parts of the world from a comfortable distance. The ending risks exposure as vacuous, as in bad taste, as sheer cheek:

 

The Larks sing to me what they used to sing to you

before you were blown to the heavens –

companionship and music surpass rivalry and conflict.

 

Although I have never been in the jaws of combat,

and I have only ever frittered away my paltry lifetime

hibernating from current events in my cloistered corner;

 

I would like to assure you, beloved poet, who was unwavering

with your words, who spoke the stark truth amid the slaughter –

I am with you on the side of Light, with you on the side of Life.

 

          (trans. Denise Blake)

 

Yet surprisingly and triumphantly it does get away with that. And when (asks Seamus Heaney somewhere – I forget where) did a poem ever end with its last words? The irrepressible high that runs through the poem, perversely admitted as it must seem, actually makes it possible to speak again about the nearly unspeakable. War, then as now, is – as actual as the larks. At the same time the poem’s achievement feels of its time: the 1990s. The motives of the Bosnian war seemed invisible to foreign eyes, all wars were then analogous to each other. But since 2001 our concept of war has been re-politicised; I don’t think Ó Searcaigh could write this poem today.

 

For the rest, there are poems about Gealtacht countryfolk, about being inspired by the Beats, about highs and lows as a gay outsider in London, about writing poetry, about heartbreak, death, dignity and ecstasy. Hope (dochas) is constantly being blighted or re-ignited. These what we call “big” words, and we hardly ever use them in poems, get used quite hard here.

 

Irish as a living language now stands, Ó Searcaigh laments, on the very brink:

 

To-day it’s my language that’s in its throes,

The poet’s passion, my mothers’ fathers’

Mothers’ language, abandoned and trapped

On a fatal ledge that we won’t attempt.

She’s in agony, I can hear her heave

And gasp and struggle as they arrive,

The beaked and ravenous scavengers

Who are never far...

 

(from “Caoineadh” / “Lament”  trans. Seamus Heaney)

 

There is an urgency both to writing poems in Irish and to reading them. It is said that some writers in Irish resist being translated into English, and I’m pleased to be given the chance to read this. I wish I could value more highly Ó Searcaigh’s evident qualities: his extroversion, directness, variety. I might feel more excited about some other Irish-language poetry, I don’t know, but even so, given this opportunity to read one contemporary Irish-language poet at length and with parallel text, given the fertility of the questions it arouses, I do now want to know.    

 

*

[The following notes on the Irish language were compiled from various sources – some of which may not be authoritative – during preparation of this review. Readers as unprepared as I was may find them interesting.} 

 

The Celtic languages, relics of Northern Europe’s dominant culture two millennia ago, are all now extinct or threatened with extinction. The healthiest by far – where none are healthy – is Welsh, rural Wales having escaped (if not much else) the clearances and the great famine of 1846, the inhuman policies of dispersal that fell most heavily on the Gaelic-speaking populations of Scotland and Ireland.

 

In 1835 the number of Irish speakers was estimated at 4 million, comprising the vast majority of Irish people “beyond the pale”. That was no doubt an unprecedentedly high figure as the rural population was exploding. Then came the terrible famine and subsequent mass emigration. In the United States Irish, like other northern European languages, tended to be displaced by English, though around 25,000 Americans still speak Irish at home. By 1891 the number of speakers in Ireland was 680,000, but this was an ageing population. Thirty years later when the partitioned Eire won independence there may have been only 250,000.

 

Even so, Eire adopted Irish as its official language and it could have gone a different route if advice from the supporters of Irish Gaelic had not been rejected, as it was in 1926.

 

The high official prestige of Irish, its compulsory study in schools and its wide use for ceremonial and sentimental purposes has done little so far to halt the decline of Irish as a truly living language. The poet Máirtin Ó Direáin (1910-88), who was brought up in the Aran Islands, spoke only Irish until his mid-teens, but that’s unimaginable today. The formidable currency of English is the enemy. Though nearly 1.5 million Irish people claim some measure of competence in Irish, in those very small and fragmented areas known as the Gaeltacht – the only places where Irish can feasibly be used as a medium of communication outside private life – it’s thought that the number of people fluent in Irish, optimistically 80,000 according to the last census, may really be nearer to 20,000. Nevertheless a revival of sorts is under way, and the new Irish-speaking schools (outside the Gaeltacht) are fully subscribed.

 

Despite the large number of native Irish speakers in the 18th-19th centuries, the prestige of Irish among the educated classes had steadily declined. It was perceived as the language of economic deprivation; nearly everyone who spoke it was illiterate and during this period the only poetry in Irish was folk-poetry. No standard orthography for modern Irish existed until the Second World War.

 

It’s been remarked that the poet who writes in Irish today is often placed in the curious position of being asked to justify that “choice” of language; sometimes explicitly, more often implicitly. The supposition is that anyone who writes in Irish today is bound to be fluent in English too and that a non-obvious choice has been made. In theory the prestige of Irish in the new Republic could hardly have been higher, yet many in literary communities did not buy in to this somewhat half-hearted official window-dressing: was this archaic language of ceremonial and sentiment appropriate for so serious a business as modern literature? So a vestige of that unpleasant snobbery remained. The decline of Máirtín Ó Direáin’s poetry as he gradually withdrew into an extreme rejection of threatening urbanism was seen as an example to be avoided.  But what was the alternative? Hadn’t Seán Ó Ríordáin let the cat out of the bag when he admitted he wrote poems in a language that couldn’t fully encompass his modern experience?    

 

But is there in fact a language anywhere on earth that can fully encompass our experience? Surely all but the most naïve of poets now know that their own language (whichever it happens to be) is very far from being a neutral or transparent medium for the transmission of what is around us; that on the contrary it always tries to constrain what is out there to be said; that, subtly or not, it needs more than a little destructive maintenance?

 

The writer in Irish may find common cause with other minority languages, may naturally respond to a sympathetic international interest in her/his own minority language and may also as it were win a moral victory over the notoriously monoglot native English-speaker by developing an international engagement with other languages. Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill, for example, is fluent in six languages including Dutch and Turkish. There is also a growing (though still small) interest in translations from foreign languages into Irish, exemplified by Gabriel Rosenstock’s translations from the German of Peter Huchel. It’s an endeavour that strengthens Irish while at the same time fostering an international outlook among Irish writers.  

 

Nevertheless, the growth of Cathal Ó Searcaigh’s reputation is associated with the appearance of his poems in bilingual English translation, in Homecoming/ An Bealach ‘na Bhaile (1993) and Out in the Open (1997), from which the current volume is selected. If from one point of view English is the enemy, from another point of view it’s too important to ignore. It is thus that most poetry readers in Ireland and now in Britain can be made aware of Irish-language writers and of their literature’s existence.

 

 

(2006)

 

 


Colin Falck: Post-Modern Love (1997)

 

first published in Intercapillary Space.

 

Colin Falck's Bishop Blougram is a teacher of poetry, some ten years younger than the author himself, living in Notting Hill Gate and describing the long decline of his marriage to a young post-grad who eventually goes to bed with him. The dramatic monologue is shaped into free-flowing Petrarchan sonnets, whose feats of unobtrusive rhyming I intensely admire. Our host is supposedly fuelled only by tea, but I think he must have had a couple of gins at lunchtime.

 

– Do you know the story of Carmen?

 

                                                              ¡Mujer de fuego!

– Your sexy, 'bohémienne' black-haired florecita...

Poor Don José! He's obsessed with her – ¡Carmencita!

She loves him – and wrecks his life...

                                                           Then it's hasta luego,

And she gives herself to a brainless toreador

Olé, and the rest. But it ends in death.

 

                                                               Bizet

Saw death in this innocent tale by Mérimée

And gave us the music to love and die with...

 

                                                                          Amor

Y muerte.

                   It's there in that plunging mezzo-soprano;

It's in Tristan; – or Mahler, or Ravel...  It's even in Sinatra

In those midnight hours...    Every breath you take.   Alors,

From Shakespeare to Berlioz, from the madrigals to Chopin's piano

To most of opera...  – Delilah, Amneris, Cleopatra,

Sending their men to their deaths. L'amour: la mort.

 

 

Post-Modern Love veers sharply, as any modern book involving sonnets is bound to do, between burlesque and seriousness. This I suppose is what Dana Gioia meant by calling the book "uniquely disquieting". The burlesque colours, however, rather tend to run and obscure the serious ones.

 

One of the more enlivening things about this performance is that the professor's chief opinions on literature and society are recognizably Falck's own; yet they are flung out as mere bald dicta, or laid alongside crashing commonplaces and bizarre errors some of which (like the astonishing view of Mérimée's Carmen in the sonnet above) are later pointed out in the notes; though a host of others, like the intrusion of Wilson Pickett into Sinatra's wee small hours, are left for us to enjoy disentangling. We gather that any haziness over details isn't going to stand in the way of a punchy exposition. The professor, despite his background in a 1960s counter-culture that Falck detests, is nevertheless a kind of loose-lipped burlesque of Falck himself. Curiously there is a sort of Mr Sludge effect - disarmed by the utterly compromised nature of the medium, I find I'm actually entertaining notions that, in Falck's literary-critical books, are not worth a second thought.

 

                                          (You know, I've just thought?

Another reason why modern literature's dead?

It leaves out kids - or just treats them like desperate nerds –

Yet they're more important than 'art', or being good with words,

Or even than doing post-modernist things in bed...)

 

I think this is meant to be a burlesque of Falck's beloved Wordsworth. The word "kids" implies a treatment of its own, no doubt - clearly it already pre-empts the solutiion, or rather converts it into describing the experience of being a parent; the poet who is trapped in a poetic of the contemporary experiential "I" can't really help leaving out other people, whether it's these statistical "kids" or the bedmates that the professor attracts so readily but finds so hard to characterize in the poem except in the forms of fantasy and betrayed fantasy. But perhaps I am going rather too far in this, since what is more characterizing than sanding floors?

 

The house took ages to do. It was a long, hard haul,

And we sometimes lost heart. At night I'd be soldering bends

In pipes that leaked; she'd be sanding floors. At week-ends

We'd be mending drains, or rebuilding a garden wall...

 

"I'd" is an indicator word of mainstream poetry; sleeves-rolled-up directness and material drawn from the past habitual. Like many another convention of talk in poetry, it is not so often heard in real talk, possibly because most listeners don't accept the past habitual as something worth talking about; by definition, it is not cutting to the chase. The limitation about characterizing is a limitation of the kind of discourse that the professor indulges in. Determined to work with long vistas of time, he has no bent for quoting conversation, unlike those whose narrative skills are honed on what happened to them in the last couple of days. The professor is no reporter, content to let chunks of experience make their own effect; befuddled by intellectual debris, he seeks to come up with a grand interpretation; in Hegelian world-historical terms, as Falck the annotator points out.

 

Something went wrong, in the Sixties – it needs to be said.

(I've said it already, I guess, but there was so much more...)

– That strange, lost world before the end of the Vietnam War!...

It was all so positive – yet there was something spiritually dead.

 

Part of the trouble was language. There was this endless drone

Of Dissolvespeak: everything was something else.

                                                                                    This might seem

Revolutionary! – but we had a bad old script: the Rousseauist dream –

That without 'the oppressions of society' we'd come into our own...

 

The basic ideas are Falckian, e.g. the claim of contemporary spiritual deadness, but they're expressed with an enterprising lameness that self-instantiates the prevalence of "Dissolvespeak"; which (I dream) suggests a valuable insight, but glimpsed as it were from a hotel in Bayswater. Nothing really suggests that the professor took on board anything from the Sixties to back up the claim - it sounds more like a concession - that "It was all so positive"; at any rate, we see the sonnet decline into reactionary bitterness:

 

                                                           So the vacuous 'love'

Turned to hate. You got the 'political correctness' gang:

Our Thought Police of the Nineties – the commissars and liars.

 

Considered as analysis, it's disastrous; considered as a sonnet sequence, it's  great entertainment. 

 

Notes:

 

1. Colin Falck merits several footnotes in a history of the British mainstream. He became friends with Ian Hamilton at Cambridge and was involved in Hamilton's combative Review in the early 60s. At around the same time, Falck and Hamilton proposed and exemplified in their poetry the shortlived "Neo-Imagist" school (also David Harsent, Hugo Williams, Michael Fried...), supposed to be characterized by extreme concision and plainness, memorialized here by John Fuller in "To James Fenton" (from Epistles to Several Persons, 1973):

 

What about Neo-Imagism?
      Impossibly lyrical.

Such knowing brevity needs patience:
As unfastidious Croatians
Upon quite intimate occasions
      Shun body-talc,
So leave your interpersonal relations
      To Colin Falck.

For poetry to have some merit he
Requires it to display sincerity,
Each pronoun to convince posterity
      With deep emotion
And an invigorating verity
      Like hair-lotion.

Well, that’s unfair. I’m glad he lives.
Just think of the alternatives!
Those whose verse resembles sieves
      Or a diagram,
And foul-mouthed transatlantic spivs
      Wooing Trigram.

 

(I extend the quotation to incorporate that interesting reference to the Benvenistes.)

 

Falck has subsequently managed long-running poetry workshops in Hampstead and Morley College, meeting-places of younger mainstream poets: Don Paterson, Michael Donaghy, Vicki Feaver, Selima Hill, Eva Salzman, etc.

 

He is also the author of the philosophical Myth, Truth and Literature: Towards a True Post-modernism (1989, 2nd edn. 1994) and the literary-critical American and British Verse in the Twentieth Century: The Poetry that Matters (2003), fierce onslaughts on modern tendencies whose implausible central tenets (modern poets aren't interested in reality, modern literary academics hate poetry, etc) go un-self-questioned; more seriously, whose treatments of "the poetry that matters" (Eliot, Yeats, Jeffers etc) are too incapacitated by the author's aversion to new ideas to venture anything new themselves. 

 

2.  On a planet deep beyond Sirius, a new world dawns.

 

This is the line with which the Epilogue (mingling epiphanic but ill-matched scraps of Arnold, Meredith and Kipling into a thoughtful post-coital wander round the house at night) comes to an end, and perhaps the main function is to marshal some plangent harmonies signalling the imminent FINIS, such as "deep". In July (1992), the time of the poem, Sirius would not be visible from anywhere near Notting Hill Gate. When it is visible (in winter in the UK), it is the brightest star in the sky, mainly because it's so close (8.6 light years, the seventh nearest star); most of the universe, therefore, could be said to be "deep beyond Sirius". A sentimental reading could see the planet as metaphorical of life beyond the cynicism of the dog days, like the soft-thighed post-grad. Or the planet might be the reconceived Earth itself, the obvious planet to mention in the Sirius vicinity.

 

Post-Modern Love was published by Stride in 1997 (ISBN 1 900152 16 9).

 

(2008)

 

A Brief History of Western Culture – Michael Peverett

Section 1. To 1588

Section 2: 1588-1790

Section 3. 1790-1870

Section 4. 1870-1945

Section 5. 1945-1975

Section 6. 1975-1984

Section 7. 1985-1997

Section 8. 1997-2004

Section 9. 2004-Now

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